Throughout the entirety of last season, I anticipated Kawhi Leonard’s inevitable departure from Toronto come July. Friends called me overly pessimistic, but in my mind, it was the safe choice. If I didn’t have expectations, I couldn’t be let down. Right?
Well, not exactly. The media circus surrounding Kawhi’s free agency became so widespread that it prevented me from going about my daily life. Every minute of every day, I was consumed by feelings of both excitement and dread, frantically entering and exiting my brain like commuters through a subway turnstile at rush hour. Every piece of news, big or small, felt like either a harbinger of doom or a sign of Christ’s second coming.
As much as I hate to admit it, I think a tiny, naïve part of me succumbed to the idea that Kawhi may be in the Raptors’ future after all. The sheer enormity of “Kawhi Watch” felt like a sign from above, like it was leading to something miraculous. But then, in the wee hours of the morning on July 6th, the news broke that Kawhi signed with the Clippers seemingly out of nowhere, bringing Paul George along with him. The childlike wonder ripped from my heart as I simply said to myself, “Welp… I guess that’s it.”
It’s easy to reminisce fondly about the times Kawhi spent in Toronto with the Raptors and wish he’d stayed long-term. But, I’d instead like to posit that parting ways might’ve been for the best. As a city, we can all look back fondly on last season as an untarnished success story, complete with unforgettable memories and franchise-defining moments. It feels like we all lived through a real-life fairytale; I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Now that I got my own Kawhi tribute off my chest, I look forward to watching the Raptors’ tribute before tonight’s game. While I’m sure emotions will be running high, I expect Kyle Lowry and company to shake off their jitters and play as hard as they did opening night. Fred VanVleet is listed as questionable for tonight’s outing, so let’s hope Terence Davis brings some much-needed energy and shows Kawhi what he could’ve had (sorry, couldn’t resist).
Here are the details for tonight’s game:
Where to Watch:
TSN 1/4/5, 7:00 p.m. EST
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Los Angeles – Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Moe Harkless, Ivica Zubac
Toronto – Fred VanVleet (questionable – knee), Stanley Johnson (out – groin), Patrick McCaw (out – knee), Matt Thomas (out – finger)
Los Angeles – Rodney McGruder (out – hamstring), Landry Shamet (out – ankle), JaMychal Green (doubtful – tailbone)
Diamonds Are Forever
As previously mentioned, Kawhi will receive his ring pre-game tonight in a special ceremony during which he should receive a rousing ovation. While this is a momentous occasion to some, Leonard, collected as ever, is simply looking forward to playing a basketball game:
Kawhi Leonard on returning to Toronto next week: “I’ll be thinking about just playing against the team and wanting to win the game, for the most part. Just really getting my ring that night. ... We’re there for one reason: to play the Raptors and try to win the game.”— Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) December 5, 2019
He left his mark on Toronto in heroic fashion and is now understandably moving on to his next challenge. Part of this challenge is defeating Toronto tonight, so they better have some answers. The last time these two teams played, the Raptors held Kawhi to just 2-of-11 shooting despite OG Anunoby going down early with an eye injury (courtesy of Leonard himself). Now equipped with a healthy frontcourt, the Raptors would be even more capable of defending Leonard, if not for the arrival of a certain homewrecker…
Paul George Joins the Party
That’s right, Paul George is back in action and he looks as spry as ever. George is scoring at a career-high rate, both in terms of points per 36 minutes (29 points) and efficiency (0.56 eFG%). Unfortunately, unlike last time the Raptors are going to need to divide Pascal Siakam and OG’s minutes between the Clippers’ two stars.
Norman Powell has been known to dominate Paul George-led teams in the past, so hopefully he can continue to contribute on that end of the floor as well. So far this season, he’s contributed a positive defensive box plus/minus for the first time in his career (0.3) and tends to defend with ferocity, utilizing his quickness and strength to neutralize his opponents.
Address the Woes
It’s no secret that the Raptors have been going through a bit of a slump recently, but don’t worry — it happens to even the best of teams (2016 Finals, anyone?). However, there are some pressing issues the Raptors need to deal with if the team wants to get back on track.
Over their last four outings, Toronto shot just 28.5 percent from three, a far cry from their league-topping mark of 40.1 percent in the month of November. Some of this can surely be attributed to tired legs, but the team has struggled to find an offensive rhythm since Lowry’s return. Most of the bench didn’t get to play with Lowry before he went down and discovered their tenacious, scrappy identity without him, so I anticipate the offense will mostly sort itself out as the players become more comfortable with each other.
As well, the Raptors have been giving up far too many offensive boards. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Terence Davis, aggressively bouncy individuals themselves, have aided in that area but they need some help. Siakam’s tentativeness as of late is costing the Raptors on both ends of the floor, in terms of both rebounding and offensive flow. He’s hesitating to take over when the team needs him the most, which is an issue many foresaw heading into the season. But, it’s still early, and he’s shown we can trust him to adapt quickly. Let’s hope at least some of these issues get resolved tonight.