In perhaps the most “3pm tip-off before the Super Bowl” moment of all time, this afternoon’s Raptors-Clippers game was for a time overshadowed by the presence of one Steve Ballmer. As some guessed, the LA Clippers owner was ostensibly travelling with the team so he could host a Super Bowl viewing party afterwards. His Clippers are just two games into a gruelling six-game road trip and it does sound like a nice thing for him to do.
Nevertheless, with the Clippers’ intention of luring Kawhi Leonard to Los Angeles well known, Ballmer’s presence in Toronto is tantamount to an act of war. And not for nothing, the Raptors did end up winning today, 121-103, with Kawhi Leonard leading the way. The Raptors All-Star would go off for 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting, with five rebounds in a cool 26 minutes to help secure the easy win. Hope it was all worth the trip, Steve.
Now, this wasn’t the only story from today’s game The other piece of late-breaking news was more unfortunate: Kyle Lowry was out with a sore back. This is obviously a far more important piece of business in Toronto than whatever the hell Ballmer is up to. Whether or not Kawhi returns next year, the Raptors will really only go as far as Lowry can take them in this year’s playoffs. Again, Toronto won — but we grow nervous.
Back to the positive notes. The Raptors did get some things going against the Clippers on their way to victory. Toronto’s oft-maligned bench unit got some extended run in the first half and, thanks to their early work, got to play most of the second. The first star off the pine was Delon Wright, who put forward one of his more complete efforts in recent memory. Yes, this was against an obviously exhausted Clippers team, but still. Wright was all over the place with 14 points, three assists, three rebounds, and two steals. He even shot 50 percent from the field. He was joined for most of that run by C.J. Miles who continues to rediscover his shooting stroke. Miles put in 15 points on 3-of-5 shooting from deep, plus four rebounds. It was a nice effort from both players.
When coupled with these two, it was equally nice to see Norman Powell get a chance to orchestrate and push the tempo a bit for Toronto. And, sure why not, cheers to Greg Monroe for actually putting the ball in the basket too. For his efforts, Norm finished with seven points and five rebounds on a rough 3-of-11 shooting. Monroe, meanwhile, put in nine points and grabbed seven boards, which suggests something of the pace and energy of this game. If Monroe is cooking you in 2019, you may already be beat. (This is to say nothing of Chris Boucher who jumped into this game with both feet, putting up six shots in six minutes for eight points. The kid has moxie, I’ll give him that.)
The rest of the Raptors’ starters mostly did their thing. Fred VanVleet put on his best Lowry (circa right now) impression, with nine points on 4-of-10 shooting to go with seven assists. Pascal Siakam had a light afternoon of 15 points and four rebounds in just 21 minutes. And Serge Ibaka played back up to form with 16 points (on some nice 6-of-9 shooting; even hitting a 3 in the process) and 12 rebounds. While it’s not always the case, when Ibaka is playing efficiently the Raptors tend to look better. Ibaka also got off the line of the night:
But now let’s get back to Ballmer. It was definitely a funny turn of events that saw Kawhi sit out both games in Los Angeles this season (both Raptors wins). As has been discussed elsewhere, we know that Clippers consigliere Lawrence Frank has been shadowing the Raptors and Leonard since the season began in an effort to... what? Freak him out? Frankly, I don’t quite get it. (Plus, Frank is easily the least consigliere-y guy out there.) This is the energy now whenever the Raptors and Clippers met (which won’t happen again until next season).
Anyway, the Raptors didn’t need Kawhi to do much in this one. He annihilated Avery Bradley when given the chance; he and the squad erased most of what Tobias Harris, the type to torment Toronto in the past, was trying to do; and it mostly looked like Kawhi didn’t even have to break a sweat. It was just one of those blink and you’ll miss it explosions that suddenly put the game out of reach for LA. We could, if for a time, forget all the other drama. As Raps coach Nick Nurse remarked afterwards, it was nice to have a low pressure game like this one. May as well enjoy it when it happens.