We’ve reached the quarterfinals!
Some wild and unpredictable action has carried us to this point. Favourites have fallen, many Cinderellae have shone at the ball. Three one-seeds, a two, three sixes (!!) and an upstart eighth-seed have survived the first two rounds of the tournament. There are no pretenders left here. The lone 1-2 regional final match-up pits the two pre-tourney favourites against one another. Pascal Siakam is heavily featured in a pair of the remaining entries. Some nuggets of truth are going to go home earlier than they deserve. It’s a tournament loaded with talent, man. The mountain of evidence portending Kawhi’s decision to stay is robust enough that every bit of proof was guaranteed a hard road to the finals — what was the committee to do?
Sean Woodley and Jay Rosales are here to narrow it down the four most convincing pieces of He Stay evidence. Here we go.
CANDID CAMERA REGION
(1) Celebrating Pascal’s Winner vs. Phoenix vs. (6) Applauding Boucher’s Chasedown
Kawhi was on his feet after this chase down block by Chris Boucher. pic.twitter.com/Vvr5BdKSh4— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 9, 2019
JR: We’re down to the nitty gritty. The best of the Candid Camera region both involve Kawhi sitting on the bench. They both involve a highlight that you’ll see on TSN’s Top 10 Raptors regular season moments. Most importantly, they involve Kawhi initiating the smile program in his… okay, I’m sorry, this has to stop.
I think the “Kawhi is a robot” thing can be put to bed already. He’s shown a range of emotions throughout the season and his teammates have constantly backed up his own assertion of being a fun guy. I don’t know what Gregg Popovich was doing in San Antonio but it’s clear that Kawhi is emoting more than ever before. Maybe it’s the culture that management has built. Maybe it’s the teammates that invite Kawhi’s joyful side out to play. Maybe it’s a combination of everything we’ve written about throughout this bracket. Whatever the reason, Kawhi is obviously a great teammate who genuinely likes it in Toronto and ain’t afraid to emote about it. Full stop. Alright, back to the match-up.
With so many similarities between the two highlights, I need a Tale of the Tape to help decide.
Which highlight made Kawhi happier? Pascal, easily. Kawhi’s celebration for Boucher looked like a golfer clapping for his partner who just won the tournament, “I’m proud of you, but I’ve done that before.” For Pascal, Kawhi was definitely thinking, “Gee golly, I can’t believe you scored that. I don’t know what to do with all this joy!”
Which highlight gives you greater hope that Kawhi’s staying? Boucher, by a margin slimmer than his arms. Celebrating the 15th roster spot is as positive a sign as you could hope for as a Raptors fan.
It’s a tie, so here’s my tiebreaker. Which highlight do you think he’d remember, if Kawhi was asked to list his favourite moments of the season? I’m going with Pascal as my final choice. But if Kawhi was really asked this question and he answered Boucher, then he’s DEFINITELY staying! That sounds confusing, but I’m sticking with Pascal as the winner.
SW: First off, let me go on the record and say I think it’s a freaking joke that The Lingering Hand got dispatched by the reader poll in the last round. I respect the sanctity of the poll enough to adhere to its decision, but man I hate it — and this is as a Lingering Hand skeptic back in round one. Anyway, I’m not mad you’re mad.
As far as the match-up we’re stuck with goes, I’m torn. We’ve gotta dig down into these smiles and compare the two.
Upon first glance, the Siakam reaction produces the more excited and exuberant of the two grins. Seems like a walk in its favour, right?
Think of the contexts from which both of these smiles were spawned. Photo 1 comes from the direct aftermath of a game-winning Siakam bucket. Of course Kawhi is stoked. He projects himself as a guy gives few shits about anything outside of basketball success. His glee here was a foregone conclusion. It’s predictable, even a little dull!
Photo 2, however… this tells me so much more. That game in New Orleans was a joke; it ended in the second quarter. Kawhi had no obligation to still be engaged in the on-court action after he sat down for the final time at the end of the third. Yet he was.
The smile on his face in Photo 2 is less emphatic. A skeptic might call it coy, or suggest that he’s just fulfilling his obligations as a teammate. But take a closer look. That is a smile borne out of comfort. It may be the most content Leonard has ever looked. There’s even an element of pride present as he marvels at Boucher’s block. “Yeah… that’s my fucking teammate,” he said, probably.
Also consider when this game took place on the calendar. Toronto blitzed New Orleans on March 8th, almost a full month after the Marc Gasol deal. In that game, the Raptors rolled out the starting lineup, featuring Gasol, and it crushed. All but one of the starters posted a plus/minus higher than 10; Gasol was a +6 himself. Reading the contours of his face, you can see Kawhi’s realization of the opportunity these Raptors present him setting in. This is a comfortable man, with a comfortable smile. There’s no need to sensationalize his happiness with gregarious yells or an agape mouth. Kawhi’s rocking the face of a man wrapped in a heated blanket on a Sunday afternoon. I know this because I have made that face under those circumstances before. Those are some of my happiest moments. He is staying.
Alas, Jay has the wrong opinion on this matter, so we have but one place to go. TO THE POLL!
more heartwarming Kawhi celebration -- reaction to Siakam's winner vs. Phoenix, or his reaction to Chris Boucher's garbage time chase down block vs. the Pels.— Sean Woodley (@WoodleySean) March 29, 2019
“Celebrating Pascal’s Game Winner” advances.
EXTERNAL FACTORS REGION
(8) “Snow is nice to look at.” vs. (6) Pascal Siakam is Really Good Now
SW: Kawhi’s possible affinity for a frolic in a freshly powdered field has had a fantastic run through the tournament. Its two tournament victories are a middle finger to all the rubes whose first and only take on Toronto is “brrr, cold.” Half the damn league is located in cold weather cities. Kevin Durant is by all accounts ready to ditch California for New York, where there is both snow and a bad basketball team. Is it SO crazy to think Kawhi might be a fan of the cold? Or at the very least willing to stomach a few months of it in the interest of playing for a good ass team? Obviously we don’t think so here, because we’ve advanced this eight-seed all the way to the quarters.
That said, Pascal’s talent supersedes Mother Nature entirely. If he’s not in the league’s star tier yet, he’s damned close. Every time he ISOs and spins on a poor fool, or knocks down a corner three, or swallows up an entire opposing team for a quarter as he did in the fourth on Sunday against Charlotte, he paints another piece of a picture — one of a perfect complimentary star to play next to Kawhi. It is unbelievable that Siakam’s development was only given a sixth-seed in this tournament. The idiot who made the bracket should probably quit writing.
Jay, where you leaning here?
JR: I agree. Who is Kawhi playing next to in L.A? Jimmy Butler, who will surely end his streak as a toxic teammate? Kevin Durant, who definitely won’t have any problems dealing with the Los Angeles media? Kyrie Irving, who is a stellar leader that will never throw his teammates under the bus? Meanwhile, Toronto has, not one, but two teammates who are All-Star calibre AND stand-up guys. Lowry may be on the wrong end of 30 but Siakam is the real selling point.
It’s ironic that these two are matched up. “Snow is nice to look at” is essentially the ‘most improved’ factor in Kawhi’s recruitment. From day one, all news outlets wondered about how Kawhi would adjust to living in Canada. All season long, Kawhi answered every single “is it cold” question as best as any Raptors fan would hope. It all culminated with his statement on snow’s beauty on All-Star weekend. Unfortunately, it’s going up against the ‘most improved’ that matters most.
You’ve nailed all the Siakam points perfectly, Sean. Spicy P moves on to the Fab... no. Fantastic... no. Final? Damn, they’re all taken. Wait — Fanatical Four!
“Pascal Siakam is really now” advances
ENCOURAGING QUOTES REGION
(1) Tim Bontemps Podcast Clip vs. (6) Masai’s Media Day Speech
your weekly "kawhi is really happy" update pic.twitter.com/D9JxdwON1q— William Lou (@william_lou) March 15, 2019
Masai Ujiri - "The narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone. I think that's old and we should move past that. Believe in this city. Believe in yourselves." pic.twitter.com/ZaTzXxbLqx— TSN (@TSN_Sports) September 24, 2018
JR: I’ve made the mistake of picking against Masai before, and I’m going to do it again. While Masai’s speech is easily the most dramatic quote of the season, I believe it laid the foundation from which most other Kawhi-Is-Staying news bits were built on. His rallying cry was aimed at changing the mindset of an entire fan base, while also calling out any NBA player that doubted the prospects of playing north of the border. It was also not-so-quietly pointed at the superstar seated to his right, as if to say, “You may not see it now, but you’re going to want to stay.”
Despite all that goodness, I’m going with the one-seed. The purpose of this bracket is to eventually point to one news bit and say, “THAT is why Kawhi is staying.” Outside of Kawhi actually saying, “I’m staying,” aren’t Bontemps’ words the closest we’ve heard that Kawhi re-signing isn’t just a pipe dream (at least before Josh Lewenberg’s latest inject-this-in-my-veins report)? Tell me my convoluted reasoning makes sense, Sean. The Tim Bontemps Podcast Clip wins, right? RIGHT?!?!?
SW: This is a showdown between the two sound clips from this year that most felt like adrenaline shots to the heart when I heard them. Sitting in the gallery for Masai’s speech, it took every ounce of energy I had to not start flipping tables and running through walls in the ACC concourse. Bontemps made me put my vacation in the mountains on pause, just so I could re-listen and over-analyze every single syllable.
I’m siding with the sound bite that actually references Leonard and delves into his feelings. Masai’s speech was rousing, but was ultimately directed towards paranoid fans and bum ass reporters with nothing better to ask about than a history of star departures from which the Raptors are almost a decade removed. Bontemps was relaying his notes from directly talking with and observing Kawhi. I’m going Bontemps here. He’s on to the Final Four.
“Tim Bontemps Podcast Clip” advances
MISCELLANEOUS NUGGETS REGION
(1) Serge Ibaka’s Existence vs. (2) Load Management
SW: We’re here. The showdown for the ages. Many people have been saying this quarter-final match-up is the real final of the tournament. You’re hearing it more and more. While that’s probably unfair to Pascal, there is no getting around the fact that a quarterfinal exit for one of these contenders is going to lead to some serious questions in the off-season.
Serge Ibaka is the people’s choice here. Load management, for some dumb ass reason, has carried a negative connotation from jump street. Ibaka on the other hand is unadulterated fun; he’s been photographed with his arm around Kawhi on more than one occasion, he got him on the cooking show and churned out a playful teaser centered around Leonard’s looming free agency to boot; he melts Kawhi’s icy innards through song.
the key to keeping kawhi in toronto is officially serge ibaka: pic.twitter.com/0IBD66ZUoe— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) February 16, 2019
Look at the way Kawhi lights up just at the mere mention of the Raptors’ dual-threat chef and songstress. My heart wants to go with Serge here. Everything about this unlikely friendship delights me.
Having said all of that… it’s Load Management, man. It’s the soulless pick, I know. It doesn’t sing or cook up delicious looking shanks of cow heart. It actively takes Kawhi Leonard out of games and thus leaves us unable to watch him do incredible basketball things once every three or four games. But it’s also the right pick; same as it’s been the right call by the Raps to exercise extreme caution in their handling of the guy they hope to convince to stick around well into the 2020s. Load management is the thing that has inspired some of the most encouraging words Kawhi’s spilled from his lips this season; it’s what has gotten him to say words like “trust” and “amazing” over the last few weeks. It’s got the kind of long-game implications that Ibaka and his amusing quirks simply do not have. Choosing Load Management over Serge Ibaka is shrewd and ghoulish. It’s the equivalent of choosing an expiring Kawhi over a dedicated DeMar DeRozan. Eight months later I don’t think any sane person is questioning that call.
Are you with me on this one, Jay?
JR: Damnit, Sean. I was really hoping you’d go with Serge because I’m going with Load Management too and kinda sorta wanted to see what the people would choose. But I guess if there are any gripes, make your own bracket!
While we both have been collecting Kawhi-Is-Staying news all season long, Serge’s trailer was a turning point. It will be the first time Kawhi participates in either of his teammates’ popular shows — the Inside the Green Room podcast being the other. We half-jokingly hope that Kawhi will announce his intentions to re-sign during the show, but even with that, his appearance will be a landmark moment in the Kawhi recruitment process and, quite honestly, the reason this bracket was created!
Sean’s done an amazing job of pointing out all the reasons why Serge’s overall #1 ranking is much more than just Kawhi appearing on How Hungry Are You. However, load management has produced a season-long collection of Kawhi-Is-Staying statements.
Every time he sat due to load management, the Raptors were scoring hypothetical points with Kawhi. When he joined the team, Leonard expressed how important it was to have a long career, and Alex McKechnie has basically pitched a perfect game.
Sorry Serge, but your run ends here.
“Load Management” advances.
So, the Final Four is set. A dual Pascal match-up between the time Kawhi got real pumped by a game-winning Siakam bucket squares off against Siakam’s general emergence into a two-way monster on one half of the bracket; Tim Bontemps’ glowing words about Leonard’s glowing aura against Load Management on the other. Check back next week as the Ka-Why Leonard is Staying Bracket reaches its dramatic conclusion!