Kawhi got ring and win | Raptors discombobulated | We still believe
the power couple i never knew i needed pic.twitter.com/EDloAe4nxg
— whitney medworth (@its_whitney) December 10, 2019
Strength of schedule, and reality
The teams the Raptors beat while Lowry was hurt were, on average, slightly below .500. The teams they’ve faced since have won 63 percent of their games. That’s not the entire explanation for what’s going on, but there has been an unfortunate confluence of events: Tough-to-adjust returns, more injuries, fewer depth options, cold shooting, Siakam figuring things out and so on, all against some very good teams and some very good defences.
It’s not an excuse. It is a reminder. The Raptors entered the year with modestly optimistic expectations, picked in this space to finish third in the Eastern Conference and make the second round of the playoffs. A torrid start rose the bar, but the margin for error against the league’s very best was always small. The Raptors have hit a skid and lost games to some great teams, which often happens to good teams.
A 16-8 start is something most would have taken before the season. It’s a 55-win pace, and the Raptors have got their two toughest stretches of the season out of the way already. That doesn’t make the five-game skid less frustrating or less concerning overall. It does, however, return the macro snapshot of the team to approximate homeostasis. They’re a good team. Things will be OK. Right now, they’re not.
Well, they’ll always have the ring ceremony. The Raptors led after the first quarter and were in the game until midway through the second quarter – they trailed by three with just under seven minutes left in the half. But the Clippers finished on a 23-8 run to take 64-46 lead into the half. They had it to five late in the third before the Clippers closed the period with a 12-0 run to push the lead to 17. Toronto never challenged in the fourth.
When Leonard left the Raptors to join the Clippers, he wasn’t only going home, he was joining one of the most potent lineups in the NBA, featuring fellow MVP candidate Paul George and a Swiss Army knife of options after that.
Leonard was his typical efficient self as he finished with 23 points on 14 shots while adding five rebounds and six assists in 33 minutes. His running mate Paul George was limited to 3-of-14 shooting but the Clippers are loaded. The Raptors’ biggest challenge was Lou Williams as the veteran shooting guard came off the bench and scored his 18 points in bursts in the second and third quarters and was plus-29 in his 33 minutes.
The loss dropped Toronto to 16-8 as it lost its fourth game in five starts and third straight at home.
Toronto was led by Pascal Siakam’s 24 points while Norman Powell chipped in 22, but the Raptors shot just 36 per cent from the floor and 8-of-36 from three with Lowry and Serge Ibaka as the main culprits – they shot just 1-of-16 combined on all their attempts as they struggle to find their form after missing 11 and 10 games, respectively, with injuries.
“I’ve had two good games and the rest have been s—, to be honest,” said Lowry. “Once I get back to where I was at the beginning of the season, it will be great. Right now, I’m just trying to work my way in and trying to figure it out, and get better and get better over time. But right now, I’m nowhere near where I want to be physically and where I need to be.”
With Lowry and Ibaka sputtering, there was no magical comeback that would have made for the perfect home-crowd Christmas gift.
When Leonard (and former Raptor, now-Laker Danny Green) left this past summer, they didn’t leave the Raptors a desperate, flailing tea but what Leonard took with him was Toronto’s margin for error. The Raptors aren’t going to beat many teams – let alone elite ones powered by Leonard – when Lowry and Ibaka can’t score or when Fred VanVleet – who missed his second straight game with a knee injury — isn’t available to bail them out.
But beyond the pomp, circumstance and genuine emotion seen in the lead-up of this Wednesday-evening game between the Clippers and Toronto Raptors, the game itself was more indicative of a different aspect of the championship celebration Leonard was showered with: his championship ring itself.
As part of the design of every Raptors title ring is a custom inscription, and in Leonard’s case the logo in there reminds him to wear the gigantic piece on his middle finger.
“I have, like, an ‘Eff You’ symbol.”
This is pretty fitting, because as he soaked in the warm adoration of the Toronto crowd and appeared to genuinely enjoy the tribute his former team prepared for him, he and his new squad went out and figuratively stuck a big ol’ middle finger up to the same crowd and Raptors organization as the Clippers routed Toronto, 112-92.
Leonard finished with a team-high 23 points on an efficient 8-of-14 shooting from the floor, but even though this was a night that was basically entirely dedicated to him, Leonard wasn’t necessarily the reason why the Clippers were so successful.
As is becoming something of a norm when teams face the Raptors, the Clippers offence used their aggressive defensive schemes against them and moved the ball to the open man.
“I thought our passing in that first half was the best we’d had all year,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “Talked about it in shootaround, just let them come, look around, find your guy. We did it because of the traps and our guys were patient.”
Right before the game began, Leonard was the first Clipper on the court, six separate video cameras following his every movement and breath.
“How many cameras you need on the court?” Lowry said, punctuating his joke with an expletive.
Once the game started, the Raptors blitzed Leonard, sending multiple defenders at him every time he touched the ball. They were physical and determined to make it impossible for him to get a good shot.
The first eight times down the court, he didn’t shoot.
On the ninth, he found space as far as he could from where he cemented his place in Canadian sports history — the right corner on the other end of the court. This time he swished home the shot, three points for his new team on their way to a victory he badly wanted.
“As far as winning a championship, it pretty much has come full circle now, being able to get the ring and see where the hard work came from,” Leonard said before going out to dinner with Lowry and his wife. “But it’s more than that. It’s just a journey.”
And no one will forget his one-season detour into Canada.
The game started out on an incredible note with the Raptors playing a video tribute for Kawhi Leonard and then holding a brief ring ceremony. It was extremely well done and very classy, all while being quite moving. The actual game itself did not quite live up to that aura, but the 1st quarter was still well played basketball. The Raptors doubled Kawhi Leonard and Paul George hard, forcing the Clippers role players to step up offensively. They were able to do so decently well in the first period, although the defense was a bit soft. As the bench came in, the Raptors extended their lead, and held a five-point advantage over the Clips at the end of one.
Things shifted significantly in the 2nd quarter. Doc utilized Derrick Walton Jr. once more over Jerome Robinson, and while Walton put up no stats in the period, his energy and defense were notable. However, the real stars were Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, who both got cooking in the period, and repeatedly roasted the Raptors’ defenders. They especially thrived playing off Kawhi and Paul George, who drew attention from the defense and freed up the bench stars for easy buckets. Moe Harkless was everywhere defensively and made great cuts on offense, while Pat Beverley battled on both ends. The result was a 37-14 walloping in the best quarter the Clippers have played all season, and a 64-46 edge at the half.
The third quarter saw the Clippers lose all the momentum they’d gained in the previous quarter. They force fed Paul George a bunch of shots, but due to Pascal Siakam’s defense he was unable to connect, and the Raptors cut the lead from 20 down to 10 in a matter of minutes. Things only got worse when Pat Beverley exited the game with a head injury (he was later ruled out with a concussion) after running into a Marc Gasol screen. They couldn’t score at all, while the Raptors continued to cut into the lead by scoring in the paint. With the lead at five, Doc Rivers initiated a 2-3 zone which turned the tide. All of a sudden, it was the Raptors who couldn’t score, and the Clippers who were pushing in transition. Kawhi and Lou made a few shots, George finally nailed a jumper, and the Clippers closed the quarter on a 12-0 run to push the lead back to 17.
The 4th quarter was largely a defensive struggle, with neither team able to get going. However, that suited the Clippers just fine, as they were able to nurse their lead without the Raptors making any major encroachments. Any time the Raptors scored, the Clippers came right back, and soon the Clippers were up 20 with just a few minutes to go, closing the game with their garbage time lineup and earning a 112-92 victory.
Toronto’s made its name on flummoxing opposing superstars all season. Thing about the Clippers is, they’ve got two, as Raptors fans well know. Into the second quarter, Leonard grew more comfy passing out of Toronto’s traps. But instead of a Damian Lillard-like situation where the escape valve leads to crummy role players, Leonard’s outlet is Paul George. When it’s not George, it’s the Lou Williams-Montrezl Harrell duo. Guarding all of those primary ball-handlers is tough enough in single coverage; scrapping and rotating to get in their face just seems bloody tiring. As the Clippers piled up 37 second quarter points to Toronto’s 14, the limits of Nick Nurse’s in-your-face schemes came into focus. It’s not crazy to credit the Raptors’ 25 percent clip from the floor in the frame to the tired legs that come with chasing stars all over the floor as well.
“We went through a really dry spell offensively and it deflated us, I think, all the way through the second quarter and into the half,” Nurse said.
Toronto began the third quarter re-inspired. Scaling back the trapping and relying on OG Anunoby (on Leonard) and Pascal Siakam’s (on George) one-on-one defensive chops, the Raptors seemed to have a little more in the tank for offense. Over the course of about nine minutes, Toronto cut the deficit from 18 to five. Norman Powell was all over this particular stretch, in the most Norman Powell ways possible.
Powell’s prominence in this game seemed to be by Doc Rivers’ design. With Leonard drawing the Lowry assignment and George on Siakam, Norm’s pastures were relatively clear and open. Problem is, he’s not much with the passing. Still, despite a couple of heinous turnovers, Norm’s wildness yielded a net positive for Toronto between minutes 25 and 34 of the game, thanks to a made three, a strip of Leonard, and probably the sexiest rebound you’ll see a Raptor grab all season. At 76-71 with 3:43 to play, Nurse’s “hell of a game” prediction became realistic again … at least for like a minute.
With the bench hands slowly filtering in, things got sticky on offense again, while the defensive damn busted open. A 12-0 Clippers run finished off the quarter, and effectively the game.
Of note in the fourth quarter was, well, not much. Nurse put the writing on the wall himself with some whack-a-doo lineup combos. All-bench lineups for this team are a dicey proposition on the best of days. Against the Clippers’ Lou-Trez unit it reeked of a desire to run out the clock. Patrick McCaw scored his customary zero points in his return to the lineup, showing he did not skip a beat while on the shelf. Meanwhile Serge Ibaka, still looking out of sorts, missed all eight of his shots on the night.
As a sequel to the hopeless bench crew, Nurse trotted out a Lowry / Siakam / Ibaka / Marc Gasol / Chris Boucher grouping (we’re saying Gasol was the shooting guard, OK?) to kill time before the final buzzer. No inspired late-game full court press like there was in Philly to close this one out.
We’ll never know whether it changed in free agency, or whether the Raptors ever really had a chance to retain him. On Wednesday, Leonard returned to Toronto for the first time since making that decision, and everything went well for him. The Raptors gave him his ring, and then his new team went out and hammered his old one 112-92, validating a decision that requires no such validation. He did not leave for the basketball; he left for the sun, and for his family and a few other factors that had little to do with what happens on the court. That things will likely go well for him professionally speaks to his prodigious talent, as well as the power he wields.
In between the lines, the game was an acknowledgment of the Raptors’ ceiling this season without Leonard. The ease with which he took Kyle Lowry out of the game on one end, and his patience in dissecting the Raptors’ aggressive traps on the other, was masterful. Very few of the people who ponied up for tickets for the game were concerned about the X’s and O’s, though.
Really, this was one last chance to show Leonard how much Toronto appreciated what he did for them. But, let’s be honest — the Raptors and their fans were trying to give off something more than appreciation, and closer to adoration. It’s totally valid, as it was a ridiculously memorable season.
Still, to look for anything resembling emotional closure after a This Was Your Life (as a Raptor) night with Leonard was silly. It was just not going to happen — not with this player.
“He never really shows emotion,” Lou Williams, his new teammate, said. “But after everything dies down, he always has a conversation about the things that he experiences.”
The implication — that he can choose how and when he processes life events — makes Leonard seem like a robot, a very common portrayal of the star. It was also the same trait that allowed the Raptors, previously knocked off-kilter by any stiff April or May wind, to make it through two months and come out the other side.
With Kawhi Leonard making his return to Toronto and receiving his championship ring, and the final meeting of the season with the Clippers finished, can the Raps finally move on from Kawhi Leonard? TSN Raptors reporter Josh Lewenberg weighs in.
Tossing Tuesday’s 8-for-36 night on the heaping pile of shooting garbage over the last four games and Toronto is shooting a collective 27.2 per cent (49-for-180) from distance.
Kyle Lowry missed all seven three-pointer he tried against the Clippers in the most telling shooting stat of the night.
“I’m just trying to think if any of them were really bad ones; I can’t recall if they were forced or not open, I think that they were decent shots,” Nurse said. “He’s in one of those grooves where he’s not making some right now and we’ll get to work on that and look at it. He goes through some shooting woes every now and then for a few games and snaps out of it. He’s too good a shooter to do that.”
Lowry won’t panic; he realizes it’s 25 games into a long season and things will even out. But in the last two games he’s missed all but one three-pointer he’s tried.
“I’ve had two good games and the rest have been (crap), to be honest,” said Lowry, who’s still shaking off the rust from his nine-game injury absence. “Once I get back to where I was at the beginning of the season, it will be great. Right now, I’m just trying to work my way in and trying to figure it out, and get better and get better over time. But right now I’m nowhere near where I want to be physically and where I need to be.”
But they will keep firing away.
“Continue to shoot them, and just continue to play our offence and making sure that we make plays for each other, and take the shot that’s there,” said Pascal Siakam, who had a team-high 24 points for the Raptors. “We can’t shy away from it because they’re not going in. Continue to move the ball, play as a team and shoot open shots.”
FOR MOST OF the 2019 playoffs, Fred VanVleet went cold. Through his first 15 games of the postseason, VanVleet was an abysmal 8-for-41 from 3-point range.
But on the off day between Games 3 and 4 of the East finals, VanVleet went back home to Rockford, Illinois, for the birth of his second child, Fred Jr.
“I was never looking back after that,” VanVleet said. “Just trying to stay in that pocket.”
Over the final nine games of Toronto’s run, VanVleet shot an absurd 30-for-57 from 3-point range — including a 7-for-9 performance in Game 5 in Milwaukee to give Toronto a chance to advance to the NBA Finals in Game 6.
This season VanVleet leads the league in minutes per game (37.8) while averaging career highs in points (18.7), assists (7.3) and steals (2.0). According to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, he’s in line for a nine-figure contract when he becomes a free agent this summer.
Three years ago, VanVleet — whose motto is “Bet on yourself” — was an undrafted rookie biding most of his time in the G League. NBA teams had dismissed the 6-foot point guard as too slow and too small, fueling him.
“You think about that, and it’s like ‘Damn.’ It’s crazy how none of that stuff matters at all,” he said. “It’s about can you play or not, and are you in a good situation?”
Whatever his next situation is, VanVleet will always have fond memories of last spring, from the birth of his son to his hot shooting streak to the culmination of the Raptors’ championship run.
“It’s all like a blur,” he said with a smile. “Those last three weeks lasted forever.”
While the Raptors had a few months to prepare for this night, they also have had a few months to move on from Leonard — and into their future without him.
“I think that I knew before the season we had a good group of guys, good talent, good coaches and are a good franchise,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said recently when asked how the Raptors have “surprised” people to start this season. “We’re gonna be one of the better teams in the league.”
Part of the reason that Wednesday was such a feel-good night is that even without Leonard, life isn’t so bad. The Raptors are on pace to win 54 games and have the look of a feisty playoff team in the Eastern Conference. They were 9-0 at home before dropping their past three games in Toronto, including Wednesday.
The Clippers, meanwhile, are in a similar place to where the Raptors were a year ago: with a deep, talented roster that has them positioned as one of the favorites to win an NBA title.
“I’m just trying to win,” Leonard said. “That’s all I ever do is go into the season and try to win the game, help my team the best I could and just try to have fun.”
If there is one thing the NBA learned in 2019, it’s that Kawhi Leonard knows how to win. He won over a city, a fan base and a franchise that wasn’t sure how it felt about him. He won a championship for a team that had never made the NBA Finals. He won the offseason by engineering things to play out on his terms.
And on the night he got his championship ring, he won the game.
Despite this recent success, Boucher now finds himself in a tough spot in the rotation. With Marc Gasol and Ibaka assuming the helm at the five spots, Boucher is going to have to continue to fight for his minutes within the “Bench Mob.” During Ibaka’s return Sunday night, Boucher’s time on the court was cut to just under five minutes. In the team’s most recent game, Monday night against the Chicago Bulls, Boucher did see the floor for 14 minutes.
The Raptors are no strangers to having their G-League players make their way into the NBA lineup. Following in the steps of players such as Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam before him, Boucher has made his way through the system and now is faced with the challenge of making the next leap.
In the case of VanVleet, his breakout began when fellow point guard Delon Wright was traded away to the Memphis Grizzlies in the Marc Gasol deal. This trade silenced the then pressing question of who should back up Kyle Lowry at point guard, allowing Fred to develop into the starter he is today.
This 2019-20 Raptors team is speculated to once again be a buyer at the trade deadline, following their early-season success. Recent NBA rumors have suspected that Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol may possibly be on the trading block to acquire former Raptor DeMar DeRozen, according to a recent by HoopsHype. If one of the Raptors big men are traded away, Boucher would have space in the Raptors depth chart to develop at the center position.
Despite these rumors, any future deals are still unknown for the team. If Gasol and Ibaka continue to hold down the five spot, the Raptors could consider Boucher to play power forward instead. Only listed and 6-foot-9, Boucher is still able to make a big impact despite being undersized for the position. However, because of his slim frame, the Canadian has had a tough time facing larger opponents deep in the paint.
A move to the power forward spot may allow Boucher to utilize his quickness and shooting ability more effectively. By spacing the floor and drawing defenders to the 3-point arc more often, more shots would begin to open for other players in the offense.
Raptors die-hard fans rejoice! The time for you to purchase your own Raptors championship ring without breaking the bank has come. If you’ve wanted to own a championship ring but haven’t wanted to break the bank to do so, a new bundle featuring the iconic jewelry and a snapback has officially hit stores for pre-order.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Raptors announced the new bundle, revealing the Raptors Mitchell and Ness NBA Champs Snapback and ring are finally here.
Now available for a $45 pre-order, fans have the chance to commemorate their team’s 2019 NBA champion with swanky merchandise.
The sleek black hat reads the iconic slogan, “We the North” in bright gold lettering.
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