The Kawhi Leonard trade was never really a high-risk gamble for the Toronto Raptors. Sure, there was some peril in shipping out a perennial All-Star, a young center, and a protected future first-round pick for a player coming off a major leg injury. But LeBron James had already reduced the Raptors to rubble on his way out of the East, eradicating any faith that the previous Toronto core could produce anything more than what it already had. A change had to come. Might as well make it big.
Even if the trade didn’t pan out, clearing the $83.2 million owed to DeMar DeRozan set the table for a quick-pivot rebuild around the bright young things (Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet) that team president Masai Ujiri had imported over the years. And if Leonard was back in proper working order? Well, as offseason acquisitions go, it’s tough to do much better than a top-five player who can go toe-to-toe with the best in the world on both ends of the floor in a way no other player in franchise history ever has. The Raptors don’t necessarily need to keep Leonard this summer, or even make a Finals run this spring, to validate the trade. No matter which way things broke, it was the right idea for a team in dire need of a reason to believe that things could be different.
Toronto’s total demolition of the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday—a 125-89 shit-kicking in Game 5 of the second round, drawing the Raptors within one win of the Eastern Conference finals—did feel different, both from the games that preceded it in this series and from other turning-point moments in the Raps’ postseason past. It was the most lopsided playoff victory in Toronto basketball history, topping a 29-point shellacking of Orlando in Game 2 of Round 1 last month, and it tied for the second-largest postseason defeat ever for the Sixers, who, as a franchise, have been around quite a bit longer than the Raptors. On the heels of three straight heart-attack games, the Raptors traded in their customary queasiness for something calmer, more assured—and far less dependent on their superstar reason to believe.
The Raptors suffocated the Sixers, limiting Philly to 41.8 percent shooting and 25 percent shooting from 3-point range. They swarmed Joel Embiid—hampered by illness again, this time an upper respiratory infection—and Ben Simmons, harassing the Sixers’ crown jewels into 13 combined turnovers. They shut off JJ Redick’s water, limiting him to just six field goal attempts and a whisper-quiet three points. They helped and recovered, they contested everything, and with the exception of Jimmy Butler grinding out some free throws and Tobias Harris hitting a few pull-ups, they conceded nothing. The Raptors defense played well enough that Leonard didn’t need to be Superman. Which was good, because he wasn’t.
For the first time this postseason, Leonard looked human. He missed his first three shots, split a pair of free throws, and finished the first quarter with just five points on six field goal attempts—a jarring change of pace for the metronomic mauler whose unbelievable start to the conference semifinals (38 points per game on 61.8 percent shooting through four games) had drawn comparisons to the stuff of science-fiction nightmares. And yet, despite Leonard’s uncharacteristically slow start, the Raptors held a one-point lead after the first quarter, thanks to nine points from Pascal Siakam, who seemed to have much more burst after playing through a right calf contusion in Game 4, and the engine-room work of point guard Kyle Lowry.
Leonard sat at the start of the second quarter, as Raptors coach Nick Nurse turned to the jumbo frontcourt—Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Siakam—that he’d trotted out in Game 4. That had typically been bad news for Toronto against the Sixers: Through the first four games of Round 2, the Raptors had outscored Philly by 26 points in 160 minutes with Kawhi on the floor, and had gotten drilled by 34 points in his 32 minutes of rest. But then Siakam fed Gasol for a short jumper, Ibaka got Embiid to bite on one of his pump fakes for a change before driving for a dunk, and Lowry and Ibaka worked the two-man game on the left side to get the big man a rhythm jumper. All of a sudden, Leonard was checking back in … and the Raptors had actually extended their lead while he’d been on the bench.
Though he’d finish with 21 points on 7-for-16 shooting, 13 rebounds, four assists, and two steals in 35 minutes, Leonard never got fully on track in Game 5, as Philly continued to make him play in a crowd and try to force him to become a passer first. And, for the first time in this series, that was all right by the Raptors. Five days after conceding that he wasn’t helping Leonard enough in this series, Lowry grabbed control of the game with both hands early. He pushed the ball at every chance, off Philly misses and makes alike, driving to draw fouls or kick out to open shooters. He held his own when defending bigger Sixers, and straight-up ripped the ball out of Redick’s hands at one point. He set the tone that Leonard wouldn’t be alone, that Kawhi could count on help to drive the Sixers to the edge of elimination, and he got aid in that effort.
Siakam rampaged the full 94 feet, piling up 25 points with 10 free throw attempts and high-flying plays on both ends of the court. Danny Green splashed five 3-pointers and snatched three steals. Gasol actually took the open shots that Toronto generated with its ball movement, and that Philly conceded with a combination of drop coverage and lackadaisical defensive effort. VanVleet, a Sixth Man of the Year finalist last season all but erased from this series by Philadelphia’s length, made an open 3 in the first quarter, and you could practically feel all of Ontario exhale through your TV screen.
Through four games, the Raptors had looked like Kawhi Leonard and a gaggle of highly paid backup dancers. On Tuesday, they looked like the team that won 58 games despite Leonard’s load management, that saw Lowry earn his fifth All-Star berth and Siakam emerge as the favorite for Most Improved Player honors, that had the NBA’s fourth-best net rating after adding Gasol at the trade deadline, and that seemed as sound a bet as anybody outside Milwaukee to represent the East in the 2019 NBA Finals. They entered Game 5 tied at two wins apiece, having already lost a game at home to this opponent, without any room for error … and they turned in their best collective performance of the playoffs, with Lowry, the last man standing from all of the franchise’s recent postseason misfortunes, leading the way.
They looked like the Raptors. Or, more to the point: They looked like this season’s Raptors—confident, efficient, bruising—rather than previous models. You can have a reason to believe things will be different, but they won’t be until you make them that way. Maybe this was Toronto doing that work.
After last May’s extinction-level event, all the Raptors could do was give themselves a chance. Ujiri did it with the Kawhi trade (and, to a lesser extent, the deadline deal for Gasol). Lowry did it by moving past his sour feelings over the trade of DeRozan, his best friend, and by letting his new star teammate see what life as the alpha in Toronto was like. The supporting cast did it by bouncing back from three regrettable games to start this series by making plays when called upon to bring Toronto back from the brink. And now they’re one win away from only the second conference finals berth in franchise history.
Toronto might still have to go the full seven games to dispatch Philly—closeout games on the road are no joke—and might still run into the best player in the East, even if he’s got a different (and longer) name this season. That things are different doesn’t necessarily guarantee they’ll be better. But one season after all hope seemed lost, the Raptors have a superstar, and he’s got some help, and that gives them a chance. This time of year, that’s all you can ask for.