Kawhi Leonard: King of the North

Adam Manji

Tie game. Four seconds left. The ball gets to Kawhi’s hands. Two defenders come, he doesn’t care. He makes his way to the right side of the court and puts up his classic fadeaway shot from the short corner. He hangs in the air for what seems like a minute. Maybe two. Finally, the ball is released. It hangs in the air and lands on the middle rim, but bounces up and bounces onces again on the rim. The 20 thousand in the arena, the GTA, and the country of Canada all hold their breaths.

Raptors vs. Philly. Can Kawhi Leonard perform consistently at his previous level of superstardom? Can Marc Gasol contain the new all star, Joel Embiid? Will Philly’s starting lineup of stars take over or will Toronto will its way through the round with experience? Can the Raptors break the Game 1 Curse?

The Game 1 Curse. The Raptors held a 1-10 record in the first games of their playoff series. Superstition is a staple of sports culture. There’s the Game 1 curse, the GoDaddy curse, the Drake curse; all are excuses and examples of our willingness to blame our losses on outside forces. Last year, after the Raptors’ swift defeat, swept by Lebron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, many fans turned to such excuses.

The organization responded with the firing of the coach of the year and the trading of our team’s most valuable player, one who had been with the team for his entire NBA career. Along with him, we traded Demar Derozan, who had not performed at the same level as Jakob Poeltl had, but was a fan favorite. But even his popularity couldn’t save him from the tragedies of his playoff performances, which would ultimately keep the Raptors from the finals and himself from superstardom. Instead, he became an all star, our all star.

In the South, a veteran all star – superstar, to some – wanted out of a dynasty. The Raptors, eager for growth without a fresh start, shipped Demar and Poeltl, hired Nick Nurse, previously an assistant coach, as the team’s new play caller and started preparation for their road to victory. While many fans questioned this decision and saw it as a betrayal, others believe that the days of Demar Derozan leading the Raptors took us nowhere. Now, with Kawhi Leonard, there was no question of what we had to do – go to the finals or lose our the chance which we traded everything for: why would Kawhi stay in a dying dynasty whose claim to fame was a 4-2 loss in the Easter Conference Finals only three years earlier.

The Game 1 Curse consumed us in round one, yielding a horrifying defeat at the buzzer to a much weaker Orlando Magic team. Coming off four straight wins, however, we had confidence.

The Game 1 Curse was broken. Kawhi made quick work of Philly’s first line, putting up 45 points on an efficient 16-23 shooting. The 76ers were powerless to stop him from anywhere on the floor: he created space when and where he wanted and put the ball in the hoop with ease, whether he was wide open, in transition, or had a defender right in his face. Pascal Siakam continued the success he enjoyed in previous games with 29 points to compliment Leonard. While our main sources of offense put in more than their fair share of work, the bench’s continued weak performance was worrying. Across the entire bench, a mere 10 points was scored between only Freddy and Serge. Despite this, Toronto emerged victorious, defeating the 76ers by 13 points.

Games 2 and 3 saw excellent performances from Kawhi, Pascal and Lowry, yet the Raptors fell short in bothe games, home and road, due to weak bench performances as well as outstanding offensive play by the 76ers, especially in Game 3 in Philadelphia, led by a well rested and fully recovered Joel Embiid, taunting the Raptors and their fans with his flashy celebrations.

Game 4. The season and the future of the Raptors rested on these 48 minutes in Philadelphia, a make or break event for the Raptors. With redemption on their mind, Toronto came into the game ready to stop a 3-1 lead. But, the day before the game, Pascal Siakam was declared ‘doubtful’ for the game. While he ended up playing limited minutes, his poor 2-10 shooting and 9 points did not represent his usual level of play which had brought most to believe in him as the 2018-2019 Most Improved Player in the NBA. Kawhi Leonard produced his now ‘normal’ points, scoring 39 of the Raptors’ 101 points and was accompanied by relatively strong performances by the rest of the starters. The bench, once again, failed to produce, except for Serge Ibaka who scored all 12 of the bench’s points. Marc Gasol, who last game failed to stop Joel Embiid the way he previously had, was able to put up a strong performance as well. The end of the game saw a neck at neck battle, both team seeming to seize momentum. But, in the final minutes of the game, Leonard received the ball at the beginning of what was to be the TSN turning point. Coming off a screen and with Joel Embiid in his face, he dribbled at the larger, slower defender and used his speed and change of motion to his advantage, stepping back and squaring up to hit one of the biggest shots of the series over the hand of Embiid. With this final swing of momentum, the Raptors claimed the game. Despite not having a true performance from Pascal, Toronto was able to preserve their season, at the very least for a little while longer, tying the series as 2 wins a piece in the 5 point win.

The Raptors returned to an energized and motivated crowd who used every chance they had in Game 5 to taunt Joel Embiid the way he once had just two games earlier. Kawhi finished with a relatively quiet 21 points while Pascal bounced back from his underwhelming performance with 25. Finally, the bench stepped up and scored 32 points, making a difference in the fate of at least one of the games this series. This was the difference between the victory and Game 5 and previous ones, as the Raptors reached a series high 125 points in a 35 point win.

History repeats itself. After a huge victory in Game 1, the Raptors were defeated in Game 2. Game 6 did not treat the Raptors were challenged by strong performances all across the board by Philly. While Kawhi and Pascal kept up the consistency in their production on the offensive end, it was not enough to stop the spread out stardom of the Philadelphia starting lineup.

Game 7. Finally, a true test of the ‘new’ Raptors arises. After a quick and quiet first quarter for both team, the Raptors led 18-13. The second quarter saw more of the same, Toronto leading once again a few points. While this was the most crucial game of the series and of the season for both teams, neither was playing like it. The first half could have been one of the seventh game of the season, not the deciding game in the series, not one to determine who goes to the Eastern Conference Finals. Kawhi, while still putting up 15 points this half, seemed to have lost his efficiency, shooting 6-16. The positive runs the Raptors made were based on the efforts of Kyle Lowry and the transition offense which came from their stellar defence. The opening of the second half saw a 6-1 run for the raptors who now led by 9 points, the biggest lead of the game. Philly responded with an 11-0 run. If Toronto was not prepared to turn things around, the end of their season would come soon. Kawhi stooped to 9-28 shooting before finally ending a drought for Toronto with a three pointer. This kicked off a 13-3 run, fueled by similar efforts to those in the first half – defence and Kyle Lowry. By the end of the third, the Raptors had regained their lead with a score of 67-64 in their favor. The fourth quarter, the final 12 minutes, the first 6 of which saw small lead changes back and forth until about half way through. A few players go down and there’s a pause. The Raptors finally get a chance to catch their breath. Kawhi comes out of this with a tough basket fading from the short corner – his classic shot. The Raptors seem to have achieved some control, but not much happens until Jimmy Butler twists his ankle off a screen. A timeout. Somehow, Butler manages to come out of this timeout and play through it. Off an inbounds play, nobody on the Raptors seemed to be ready, and Kawhi is forced to throw the ball into a double-teamed Marc Gasol. The ball gets to Redick, who sinks a mid range shot while getting the foul call. He hits the free throw and with that the Raptors’ lead is gone, the game tied at 85 points per team. Less than 2 minutes left, the ball again gets Kawhi, who squares up to the basket and his defender, pulling up at the three point line. He hangs in the air before releasing the ball; it’s good. Now, every possession matters, which is why Lowry’s steal on the following Philly possession was such a huge play. Now, in transition, Kyle feeds it to Siakam who is able to finish around the defender. Toronto leads by four. The series has been riding on Kawhi Leonard and his shot just minutes earlier still lingers over the arena. The crowd is energized, chanting ‘Defense!’. After a near steal by Kyle Lowry and great defense by the entire team, a foul is called on Ibaka. Free throws are traded, but after a Toronto miss, Jimmy Butler finishes in transition: tie game. Four seconds left. The ball gets to Kawhi’s hands. Two defenders come, he doesn’t care. He makes his way to the right side of the court and puts up his classic fadeaway shot from the short corner. He hangs in the air for what seems like a minute. Maybe two. Finally, the ball is released. It hangs in the air and lands on the middle rim, but bounces up and bounces onces again on the rim. The 20 thousand in Scotiabank arena, the GTA, and the country of Canada all hold their breaths. Cheering, screaming, hugging, crying, and joy flow through the arena’s doors and to the streets. Kawhi Leonard has done it, with 41 points and the buzzer beater, finally brought the Raptors back to the ECF, King of the North. Raptors win.