Leonard over­shad­ows is­sues

Su­per­star car­ries Rap­tors to win de­spite aw­ful shoot­ing from most team­mates

Kenora Daily Miner and News - - SPORTS - sstin­[email protected]­media.com SCOTT ST­INSON

TORONTO — A for­mer Rap­tors head coach, the one who also hap­pens to be the reign­ing coach of the year, was fond of the ex­pres­sion that the NBA is a make-ormiss league.

He would de­ploy it to ex­plain a puz­zling loss, usu­ally to mit­i­gate crit­i­cism: hey, we played well, but some­times the shots do not fall. It was a phrase that was used a lot at play­off time.

On Wed­nes­day night against the surg­ing Philadel­phia 76ers, the lat­est edi­tion of Just An­other Game for the Rap­tors as they seek to avoid plac­ing too much sig­nif­i­cance on any one con­test, the Rap­tors did a lot more miss­ing than mak­ing.

Toronto play­ers who are not cen­tres and are not Kawhi Leonard com­bined to shoot 14-for-50 from the field, or 28%. From three­p­oint range, the Rap­tors’ night could be il­lus­trated with a series of head-slap emo­jis and the one that looks like a fright­ened gri­mace: Non-Kawhis were 3-for23 from dis­tance, for a siz­zling 13%.

Oh, and also: the Rap­tors won, a 113-102 vic­tory that ex­tended their NBA-best record to 21-5 on the sea­son. Last sea­son, when the Rap­tors rolled to their fran­chise-best 59 wins and top seed in the East, they didn’t win their 21st game un­til Dec. 20.

And so, the big­gest les­son that was pro­vided as the Rap­tors swat­ted away one of their main ri­vals for the East crown, the key dif­fer­ence be­tween this team and pre­vi­ous edi­tions, is this: a group with Kawhi Leonard in it can over­come a lot of prob­lems on a given night.

This has be­come some­thing of a pat­tern. With the no­table ex­cep­tion of Danny Green, the Rap­tors’ three­p­oint shoot­ing has been mid­dling at best, with the team ranked 21st in the NBA. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and C.J. Miles are all well off their nor­mal ac­cu­racy marks. And yet, they just keep win­ning.

Some of that is be­cause the team still plays good de­fence, and it still knows how to ex­ploit matchups in­side, and it trusts the math that says if you still keep hoist­ing threes than even­tu­ally a spurt of made buck­ets will change the game.

Head coach Nick Nurse said af­ter Wed­nes­day’s game that, on a night when Lowry and Green were 0-for-8 from three-point range at the half, he still knew they had been tak­ing the right shots. They are sup­posed to make quick passes to find open shots, which they did. And when they are wide open, as they were, “most of our guys are sup­posed to load it up.”

But, clank. And also: clank. That the head coach could af­ford to be san­guine about all those misses was due in large part to Leonard. He hit five of his six three-point at­tempts, bla­tantly dis­prov­ing the no­tion that cold shoot­ing is con­ta­gious, on a 36-point, nine-re­bound, five-steal night. He also ut­terly ter­ror­ized Philadel­phia’s Ben Sim­mons on the de­fen­sive end, lim­it­ing him to eight points, 11 as­sists — and seven turnovers. (It’s the se­cond time he has had that ef­fect on Sim­mons in two games.)

While Leonard is still get­ting com­fort­able with his new team­mates — he has missed six games as the team lim­its his work­load — he has been stel­lar in all of the Rap­tors games shown on na­tional tele­vi­sion in the U.S., which in­cluded Wed­nes­day, part of a spe­cial “Toronto All Ac­cess” day on ESPN. (Some­what hi­lar­i­ously, Leonard also did not par­tic­i­pate in any pre-taped in­ter­views with the net­work, stick­ing to his pref­er­ence to re­main near-mute.)

Nurse ad­mit­ted af­ter­ward that for all the just-an­other game talk, Leonard is able to raise his per­for­mance for the big­ger stage.

“For him, it’s in­ter­est level,” Nurse said. “There are big­ger games than oth­ers.”

He said he thought you could see that there was a lit­tle more jump in his step, as ev­i­denced by a cou­ple of soar­ing dunks that sent Sco­tia­bank Arena into bed­lam.

All of which makes sense. Leonard, 27, went to the Fi­nals with San An­to­nio when he was a 21-year-old rookie, and he won a Fi­nals MVP a year later when he all he did was guard LeBron James for a whole series. He rel­ishes play­ing in big games, judg­ing by his per­for­mance in them, which is all we have to go by since no one has any idea what he is think­ing.

It has been noted that Toronto’s blis­ter­ing start is due at least in part to a soft sched­ule. But now they have re­cent wins over Golden State and Philadel­phia to fur­ther pol­ish the re­sume, both games in which Leonard was sub­lime.

None of that will change the fact that the defin­ing ques­tion of this fran­chise — can they do it in the play­offs? — won’t be an­swered for sev­eral months. But for many sea­sons now, even as they changed the team from NBA af­ter­thought to se­ri­ous con­tender, they have lacked the kind of star who could sim­ply take over the game against high-level com­pe­ti­tion.

The Rap­tors, for now, have that guy. He wears the num­ber 2 on his jer­sey.

FRANK GUNN/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Philadel­phia’s Jimmy But­ler fouls Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard dur­ing the Rap­tors’ 113-102 win over the 76ers on Wed­nes­day.

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