Kawhi Leonard’s been the best player in the Eastern Conference playoffs so far. (Especially after what happened to Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee on Sunday.) He annihilated the Orlando Magic in five games, averaging 27.8 points per game on 56/54/89 shooting splits—and that includes the game where he went 5-for-19 while sick with the flu. He opened the second round with a flourish, pouring in a career playoff-high 45 points and making the Philadelphia 76ers look powerless to stop him. And even after the Sixers proved that wasn’t entirely true, switching up their defensive looks to limit Leonard to just three field goal attempts in the first quarter of Game 2, the All-Star forward charged back to produce another monster performance. Nearly two years after the Zaza Pachulia closeout that changed everything, Leonard is back in the opposition-wrecking, MVP-caliber form of his last days in San Antonio, or damn close to it, at least.
But despite Leonard finishing with an efficient 35 points and six assists, his Toronto Raptors lost Game 2 on Monday night, as the Sixers slugged out an it-wasn’t-pretty-but-we’ll-take-it 94-89 win. Against top-flight competition, even the greatest players need help, and with Philly now holding home-court advantage as the scene shifts south for Game 3 on Thursday, a big question looms. You can count on Playoff Kawhi to come through. But can he count on the rest of the Raptors?
Brett Brown did indeed shake up his team’s defensive assignments after Game 1. The Sixers coach slid the 6-foot-10 Ben Simmons off point guard Kyle Lowry and onto Leonard, in place of the smaller Jimmy Butler. He also moved center Joel Embiid—who needed IV fluids before the game to battle through, um, intestinal issues—off Marc Gasol and onto his fellow Cameroon native, forward Pascal Siakam, with Tobias Harris picking up the Raptors big man. The switch paid off handsomely in the early going.
Simmons (and his alert help-defending teammates) did an excellent job of fighting through screens and working to deny Leonard easy catches, which disrupted Toronto’s flow and forced the Raptors to look elsewhere for early offense. At the same time, Embiid’s sagging on defense effectively dared Siakam to either shoot from distance or drive into and finish over a giant roadblock in the paint. The combination led the Siakam bandwagon to hit a speed bump. The Most Improved Player front-runner went from pirouetting to the rim for layups to trying to find the range on some awkward floaters, leading to a 3-for-11 start from the field for a player who went 12-for-15 in Game 1.
With Siakam scuffling, Kawhi quiet, and Lowry trying to find the flow of the game, the Raptors offense stalled out in a hail of forced resets, low-percentage attempts late in the shot clock, and shots taken by secondary and tertiary threats. The result: The Raptors missed two-thirds of their shots through two quarters, staking Philly to a 13-point halftime lead that could’ve been twice as large had the Sixers not coughed the ball up 13 times, leading to 18 Toronto points.
The Raptors later made runs to get back into the game, including a 22-10 third-quarter burst and a 19-7 jolt in the fourth, both of which cut the deficit to one. But on Monday, those ultimately mattered less than how they got behind the eight ball in the first place. With Siakam, who has come so far so fast, stumbling as Leonard’s supporting scoring threat. With Lowry, still Toronto’s highest-priced talent and backcourt bellwether, looking more complementary than commanding. And with Leonard, doing it all in the face of near-constant Philadelphia double- and triple-teams, often left to fend for himself.
These Raptors differ from their predecessors because they have Leonard, exactly the sort of defensive destroyer on the perimeter, high-value shot creator, and source of efficient late-game offense that Toronto lacked during the DeMar DeRozan–Dwane Casey era. And yet, a favored Raptors team still clanged away an opportunity to seize control of a series on Monday, inviting doubt where none needed to exist.
Perhaps that’s not entirely fair. After all, they lost Game 1 to the Magic before blowing Orlando’s doors off for the next four, and we’re just two days removed from the Raptors’ formula clicking to the tune of a decisive victory over these same Sixers. And while Lowry’s checkered postseason past will always be a talking point when the Raptors struggle, he did finish Game 2 with 20 points on 7-for-17 shooting, five rebounds, five assists, a steal, and only two turnovers in 42 minutes of work, and drilled two huge late 3-pointers to keep Toronto within striking distance into the final minute.
But then: the final minute. That’s when Lowry’s second potential nutmegging of Game 2 went awry, sending him to the deck in pursuit of the ball and the Raptors scrambling for a would-be game-tying look rather than generating one with sharp execution:
WTF was Kyle Lowry trying to do here? LOL pic.twitter.com/8gIYLWzl7V— gifdsports (@gifdsports) April 30, 2019
Either Lowry was trying to dribble the ball through Tobias Harris’s legs with 16 seconds left in a three-point playoff game, or he just egregiously lost his handle on the ball at the most inopportune moment of the contest. Neither option is ideal. Even still, the Raptors had a chance, but Danny Green—a 45.5 percent shooter from long range during the regular season—came up empty. (Due in part, perhaps, to the humongous human hauling his gastroenteritis-afflicted ass in Green’s direction.)
You can make your peace with Green’s errant attempt; it’s a make-or-miss league, and all that. But things are different until they aren’t, and you’d forgive a fan base that has been here before for feeling that familiar brand of anxiety once again while watching that dismal 17-point first quarter and Lowry’s late unforced error—especially considering everything the Raptors have riding on the outcome of this playoff run.
Leonard holds a player option for the 2019-20 season. He’s all but certain to opt out and enter unrestricted free agency, where multiple teams with max-salary cap space—most notably the Los Angeles Clippers—are expected to put on a full-court press for his services. His choice of where to play next stands as one of the league’s most compelling questions in 2019; at this stage, everything the Raptors do or don’t do has to be viewed through the prism of what impact it might have on that choice.
A team that already features Siakam—a hard-charging grinder with an emerging offensive game who can also stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Kawhi against the toughest defensive matchups—plus steady veteran hands and the future financial flexibility to construct a championship-caliber roster around them could present a pretty enticing pitch. A trip to the NBA Finals likely wouldn’t hurt, either … but for a franchise both competing for a title and continuing a season-long audition for Leonard’s favor in free agency, spotty performances and in-game decisions that make advancing harder or less likely just might.
After a pair of Gasol free throws cut the Sixers’ lead to 61-60 with 2:50 to go in the third, it seemed like the Raptors had figured things out—like they’d weathered the storm of Philly’s adjustments, restored order, and put themselves back on the path to a 2-0 lead. They hadn’t, though. You don’t have much margin for error after coughing away a first half. Thanks to some curious rotational calls by coach Nick Nurse late in the third and early in the fourth—Jodie Meeks, seemingly out of nowhere? Sticking with Serge Ibaka against Embiid rather than matching Gasol’s minutes to his, despite Ibaka struggling mightily in that matchup?—and some stellar late-game playmaking by Butler and Embiid, the Sixers were able to keep the Raptors from getting over the hump, and to get even in the series.
That’s how you lose a game in which your best player puts up 35-7-6 on 54 percent shooting while the other team turns it over 19 times. You miss 27 3-pointers. You get nothing from your bench—Philly’s Greg Monroe and James Ennis III badly outperformed the likes of Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell. And your mad-genius head coach, the one who spent all season praising fluidity and experimenting with lineup combinations, gets flummoxed into mismatch-hunting and letting shaky lineups roll for too long. You lose on the margins. The small things matter. They always do.
Those matchups on the margins might tilt Toronto’s way come Thursday. Nurse could re-evaluate his rotations, consider shifting his substitution patterns, and come up with more creative ways of attacking the Embiid-Siakam matchup or getting Kawhi the ball in advantageous positions earlier and more often. The open 3s might fall, and the battle of the bench could favor the Raptors. (Especially if Monroe’s left ankle sprain lands him in street clothes, and if Mike Scott’s either unable to reenter the lineup or out of sorts in his return.) Even if they do, though, you wonder whether moments like the ones that decided things on Monday night will stick in Leonard’s mind. You don’t have to wonder about what you’re getting from Kawhi anymore; load management is over, the real hunt is underway, and he’s about as sure as things get in the NBA right now. Past him, though, pretty much everything could be up for grabs—both in this series and beyond.