Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor.
You could end any recap of last night’s Raptors-Trailblazers game right there, as Kawhi was sensational down the stretch and hit the game winning jumper to finally put the Trailblazers away with 1.5 seconds to go.
But you wouldn’t get your money’s worth from this column if I left you hanging like that, would you? And to be fair, there was a whole lot more awesomeness in last night’s game beyond Kawhi Leonard. Let’s dive into the thoughts from a truly entertaining 119-117 Raptors win:
Kyle Lowry, There Are No Words
Well, I guess “KLOE” is as good as anything, because damn, has Lowry been amazing lately.
It’s not just that the team is better, which it clearly is; we’ve known for years now that when Lowry’s playing well, the team plays well.
But somehow, this season, it’s become so goddamned fun to watch, much more so than in past seasons — which was already fun, don’t get me wrong. But I think because this team’s ceiling is so high, seeing Lowry play at a high level is even more fun and exhilarating than it’s been in the past. I suppose too, seeing him slump for a month there, and seeing him come out of it, has been a real joy.
When he’s making plays like this...
I mean, how can you not love the guy?
Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol Are Making Each Other Better
I noted the chemistry developing between Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol the other day, and it was fully on display last night. In the first quarter, Gasol found Lowry on a quick cut to the basket for a layup, and Lowry led Gasol to the hoop out of a pick-and-roll. In the third, we had two Gasol-to-Lowry handoffs that resulted in made triples for Lowry.
Lowry summed it up nicely after the game:
Lowry on playing with Gasol: "Just give him the ball and I just make the cut. That's how good he is...To be honest with you, it's kind of easy."— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 2, 2019
Overall I feel like the Raptors are figuring out how to use Gasol now. It seemed in the first few games he was getting the ball at the top of the arc or the top of the circle, much like where Jonas Valancinuas used to get it. But that’s not really Gasol’s ideal spot — he operates more effectively from the elbows, and the Raptors offense is getting him more touches there, finally.
Maybe, just maybe, this team will get it all together in time for the playoffs.
Oh, and How About Gasol and Kawhi?
Kawhi Leonards’ playmaking has been called into question a few times this season, most notably this week by The Ringer. It’s been a fair point; he shows flashes, but often, the ball seems to stop with him.
Having someone like Gasol around might start to unlock the full Kawhi offensive experience.
Late in the second quarter last night, Leonard took the ball on the wing from Pascal Siakam, Gasol came over to screen, and as Leonard curled around he dropped a one-handed bounce pass to Gasol who rolled in for the layup. Two plays later, virtually the exact same play ended with a Kawhi jumper.
Also, this may just be me projecting, but I do feel like Kawhi’s comfort level overall is increasing. He strikes me as a guy who’s slow to trust, and building trust with new teammates (and a new coach and organization) might take longer for him than others; and with all the changes and injuries the Raptors have had, plus Leonard missing games, it might be taking even longer than that. But I think he’s getting there. Even in his postgame scrum he looked a little more at ease; perhaps he’s finally getting familiar with the faces staring back at him and is getting more comfortable. One can hope, anyway!
That aside, last night showed that, if Leonard, Lowry and Gasol are all working off the same page, this Raptors team can be damn scary:
- Leonard: 38 points, 14-of-22, three rebounds, five assists, three steals
- Lowry: 19 points, 7-of-13, seven rebounds, 10 assists, one steal
- Gasol: 19 points, 9-of-13, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals
Is that enough to call them a “Big Three”? And how about Pascal Siakam? Big Four? This team can be really, really good, it’s just a matter of getting there — and staying there.
Lillard and McCollum are Still a Handful
I was hoping these new-look Raptors, with Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam joining Lowry as perimeter defenders, would be better able to slow down Portland’s backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. It was not to be, as McCollum went off for 35 points including seven three-pointers, and Lillard — though quiet through three quarters — had an excellent finish, with 13 in the fourth including 3-for-4 from downtown, to end up with 24.
Still, I don’t think we can discount the Raptors’ defensive effort in this one. After giving up back-to-back dunks to Maurice Harkless to start the game, Gasol settled into his defensive backstopper role, generally making things tough for the Blazers in the paint. Even when the Raptors went cold to start the fourth, going a full eight minutes without a field goal, the fact that Portland never led by more than three in the fourth is a testament to the solid D the Raptors were playing. For all of McCollum and Lillard’s shot-making, I don’t think any of it came easily.
And that, ultimately, is a big difference between this year’s team and last year’s. That team was pretty good defensively, but I have a real tough time believing they’d be able to withstand an eight-minute drought against this Trailblazers team.
Look At This, This is Art
I wrote about Lowry’s outlet passes the other day, but check this one out:
How about Pascal Siakam, folks. The catch is impressive, the body control is unbelievable, and finding Danny Green open rather than forcing up a shot at the rim... it’s art.
What a fun game! Sure, if the Raptors had lost, I’d be in here complaining about the officials, as some questionable calls made this one closer than perhaps it needed to be... but this team has Kawhi Leonard, and the entire roster looks like it’s starting to gel, and if that’s the case, well, that might just be enough to overcome any opponent — even the officials.