It was a sequence you had to see to believe.
Kawhi Leonard missed a contested 3-pointer. Then Ivica Zubac struggled to finish amongst the trees, and again, and then another time. Lou Williams tried his luck in traffic, miss. Patrick Beverley? Empty. Then Williams was blanked yet again. Incredibly, it all happened on the same trip down the floor.
The Raptors got all the stops, but defence only counts for so much when you can’t come up with the board. Six offensive rebounds they surrendered on that trip, and somehow didn’t give up a single point. The sequence felt like a game of Minesweeper, the first click is normal, but each one that follows is accompanied by an exponentially increasing dread of uncovering a bomb. “Is this the dagger?”
Watch the Raptors over and over, though, and you start to get the feeling they know exactly where to plant the flags — that the misses are by design. Toronto, through 10 games, has lost three games and all of them on the road. When they trailed the Milwaukee Bucks by 26, they chipped away at the lead with stop after stop. Yes, Kyle Lowry was magnificent on that night, but limiting the Bucks to 49 in the second half after surrendering 66 first-half points opened the door for the shock that was on the cards till the final few minutes. In Boston, it was the 38.5 field goal percentage they limited the Celtics to that never let their opponent get away.
Here, against the Los Angeles Clippers, a third game in four nights, no Kyle Lowry, no Serge Ibaka, no OG Anunoby after he was poked in the eye by Kawhi in the first quarter, the defence wouldn’t relent. With under two minutes remaining, despite an offence bereft of ball and player movement as a result of fatigue, the Raptors were still right there. Ten points is all they could muster in the final 12 minutes, and if either Siakam or Chris Boucher had converted at the rim with a minute remaining, Toronto would have been within two and hunting down another stop.
Most of what the Raptors accomplished on this night was courtesy the brilliant execution of Nick Nurse’s defensive scheme to trap Leonard in an assortment of ways, trusting his players to close out to the perimeter when they had to, and Marc Gasol or Chris Boucher to be ready to contest on the drive.
So far this season, 43.1 percent of Leonard’s plays have come as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll, a sizeable 17 percent increase from his time in Toronto. The Raptors knew what to expect, the spots he was trying to get to off the action, and pressured him over and over to get the ball away. The constant pestering worked, as Leonard finished the night with a career-high nine turnovers and shot 2-for-11 from the field including missing all four of his 3-point attempts.
Much has been made of Leonard’s improved playmaking this season, and while there have certainly been strides as evidenced by more than doubling his assist percentage, it seems as though there’s also considerably more opportunities for him as a result of the increased pick-and-roll volume and reduced isolations. One thing he’ll certainly want to improve on is the 33 turnovers to his name that take the gloss off his 47 assists on the season.
Leading the charge with the defensive responsibility of Leonard on this night was Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who stepped in admirably after Anunoby left the game. Pesky is a term usually reserved for smaller guards who find a way to get in your space, but the same applies to Hollis-Jefferson. Leonard is one of the strongest forwards in the league, but the Raptors forward kept finding a way to beat him to his spots, keep his hands active, and also use his centre of gravity to play stronger than he is.
Now, three turnovers considering his role offensively should be unimaginable, and that’s something he’ll need to work on going forward. That he finished with 29 minutes and Nurse saw no reason to turn to either Stanley Johnson or Malcolm Miller is a sign that the rotation spot is now his to lose.
The depleted Raptors may have lost the battle on this occasion, but they once again showed they can stake enough flags to give themselves a chance on any night. The sixth-worst offensive rebound rate allowed, per Cleaning the Glass, will bring about the occasional bomb, but the top-10 standing in both halfcourt and transition defence shows why this team continues to succeed in the absence of a Finals MVP.
Steely determination, unabashed resiliency, the heart of a champion. Leonard left, but those traits have very much carried over from last year’s team. Their defence travels. In this game, they were just short a difference maker on the other end.
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