TORONTO – Battered, grimacing, limping. It was clear to anyone who has watched Kawhi Leonard carry the Toronto Raptors through so many magical playoff moments that he wasn’t himself.
There was no bounce. His thunder-and-lightning attacks on the rim where he either scatters the weak, casts aside the slow or rises up over the strong, were nowhere to be found.
On the odd occasion, he was willing or able to get to the rim and lift the ball in one of his massive claws. But when he came down it looked like he was in pain: the same right thigh that had cost him nearly an entire season a year ago and had been so carefully managed this season was acting up, angry at being put through so much. And it wasn’t that he just looked weary, with almost every shot short and some possessions simply spent standing around: One of the best players in the world was a decoy.
And yet the Raptors survived. They even thrived in a game where a loss would have put their dreams of an NBA Finals appearance very much on ice. If the project was entitled ‘Bail Out Kawhi the Way He’s Done For Us’ the Raptors get an A+, with bonus marks for blowing out the Bucks 120-102
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Perhaps the most telling part of the game was early in the fourth quarter when Toronto manufactured a 13-3 run that put the Raptors up 104-84 while both Kyle Lowry and Leonard were on the bench, the damage being done primarily by Fred VanVleet and Norm Powell – bench pieces that have been missing in action for most of the Raptors playoff run.
Leonard was still there to close as his three from the top of the circle with 4:16 left gave Toronto a 19-point lead just as the Raptors were briefly struggling to score, but head coach Nick Nurse was confident enough that he pulled Leonard a few minutes later after just 34 minutes – a virtual night off for him; his 19 points, seven points and four steals one of his lightest night’s work since the playoffs started.
The heroes were many as Kyle Lowry led the Raptors with 25 points while Serge Ibaka, Powell and VanVleet combined to score 48 more off the bench and Toronto was able to largely contain Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with a tolerable 25 points and 10 assists.
The win guarantees the Raptors will return to Scotiabank Arena for Game 6 on Saturday night and will head to Milwaukee for Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Finals tied 2-2. That they were able to get it done with relatively modest contributions from Leonard – not to mention just seven points from their second-leading scorer, Pascal Siakam – means they can travel with confidence.
Nurse’s words regarding Leonard before the game sounded optimistic. When laid over what actually took place on the floor they sounded almost ominous.
“He was still tired from the night before,” Nurse said of Leonard’s health on Monday after the career-high 52 minutes he needed to play to save Game 3 I double overtime. “But he said it’s a long way to game time, and I got some rest, and I’ll be ready to go.
“So looks good so far [on Tuesday]. We’ll see. I listened to some of the stuff he said, too, and he’s like, ‘It’s the playoffs, man.’ Everybody is a little sore. Nobody is 100 per cent. Everybody is getting banged around a bit. This is part of the deal if you want to advance in the playoffs.”
Leonard clearly wants to do that very badly. There can’t be any question of that.
But he can’t be expected to do it alone. And as if on cue help arrived from all directions, with his teammates putting their hands together to catch him like a playoff version of a trust fall.
The Raptors took a 94-81 lead into the fourth quarter and more than any game so far in the post-season it was a team effort.
There were big performances and smaller moments but through 36 minutes they had somehow added up to a solid double-digit lead built with only sparing help from Leonard as he tried to conserve what little resources he had for the fourth quarter if needed. There was little from Siakam, who also seemed spent from his 52 minutes in Game 3.
But there was just enough from other sources. Powell continued his renaissance, chipping in a pair of key triples. But sometimes it was just effort plays that made the difference. Ibaka fighting for an offensive rebound, extending a possession leading to a Powell three, or Lowry – in peak for all night – flying in for an offensive rebound, drawing a foul and knocking down a pair of hard-earned free throws.
The first quarter was the opposite of the grinding battle of attrition that made the second-half and overtime of Game 3 so compelling, where it felt like every basketball might be the last given the effort and attention to detail defensively.
In Game 4 both teams came out firing, no one more than Antetokounmpo, who looked like he was determined to make up for his 12-point outing the previous game. He had 11 of his 25 points in the first quarter on three dunks and two lay-ups. It looked like he had heard all the talk about Leonard making the difference and being the primary defender at the point of attack and had taken it very personally, but the Raptors adjusted as the game went along.
Fortunately, Lowry was up to the challenge. Having fouled out and played just 32 minutes in the Game 3 double-overtime marathon, Lowry looked fresh and sharp. He scored 12 of the Raptors’ first 17 points, giving his team an essential spark when it would have been easy to allow the Bucks to sprint out to a double-digit early lead.
Instead Toronto was able to eke out a 32-31 lead at the end of the first quarter – impressive considering the Bucks were shooting 12-of-22 from the floor with four threes while Leonard was just 1-of-4 from the floor and looking like he was moving in three feet of water.
Even more impressive – maybe even shocking – was the 9-0 run the Raptors were able to put together early in the second quarter with a bench-heavy lineup and Lowry on the bench. The names making the difference were out of a regular-season game on a Tuesday in January: Ibaka, Powell, Danny Green. Even VanVleet, struggling so badly in the post-season, was able to chip in with a pair of assists on the run on top of a pair of badly needed threes.
The theme of the night was struck. Having ridden Leonard into the ground – at least temporarily – it was time for some of those whose games had fallen off so badly to become factors again. Lowry led the way with 14 in the first half, but as Toronto took a 65-55 lead into the third quarter the most amazing number of all was the Raptors’ much-maligned bench chipping in 28 points while Leonard was limited to just five. It was a formula desperately needed but one few could have predicted Toronto being able to come up with on demand.
The call went out – Leonard was not at his best. For the rest of the Raptors, it was heard and answered.
Originally published at https://www.sportsnet.ca/basketball/nba/raptors-bail-weary-kawhi-leonard-complete-game-4-win/