Welcome back. We’re down to the top three highlights from the Raptors’ 2018-19 season. For the last time this season, I, Sully Akbari, along with HQ staff Josh Kern, Dylan Litman, Conor McCreery, Thomas Mooney, Mitch Orsatti, Jay Rosales, got together to give our thoughts on the top three plays of the season.
If you missed part one of our countdown, click here to see highlights 10 to 4.
Now, let’s begin the countdown of our top three plays of the year:
3. Kawhi Leonard-Danny Green Double Block on Jayson Tatum
Josh: It’s game 2 of the season. The Raptors easily dispatched the hapless Cavaliers in game 1, and while Kawhi and Danny played well... it was the Cavs. This Boston matchup on U.S. national TV was their coming out party, and seeing these guys team up for a defensive highlight gave us our very first ”oh, these guys are gonna give us something we’ve never had around these parts” moment. The fact that it was against the hated Celtics, who everyone had presumptively crowned the East’s best, and against Jason “hey did you know he’s only 20” Tatum, was just the icing on the cake.
Dylan: This play is amazing for many reasons. Firstly, it came against a division rival in the Boston Celtics, which elevated both the joy I felt and the Raptors’ perception around the league. Secondly, it showcased the defensive capabilities of the Raptors’ newest off-season acquisitions. Lastly, the rarity of the play is impressive in its own right – how often do you see a double block??
Conor: You know I’d never seen this play until now. I make a point of not watching any Celtics-Raptors games because I inevitably get way too amped up. I’m either like “we smashed these drunken leprechauns by twenty” and want to fight every guy named Sully in my neighbourhood (sorry, Sully.) OR, they lose after a typical Raptors-esque sequence of agonizingly predictable play-calls, and Kyrie Irving big-shot magic, and I want to kill myself. But this? This was pretty good? I should have watched this live.
Thomas: I’m not sure what I like the most about this play. Was it because of both newcomers going all out on defense in the second game of the season? Was it because it was on ESPN? Because it was on the Celtics and their wonder-boy Jayson Tatum? I’ll go with the Celtics reason, but it was awesome seeing two players looking to ingratiate themselves into the team go all out on the defensive end, doing what it takes to win games.
Mitch: To think back on Kawhi having his two best defensive highlights coming in the span of five days is to relish on how amazing this season has been. Give me a double block over a double rainbow any damn day.
Jay: When Kawhi and Danny were introduced, it wasn’t in front of a sold-out arena. There were no fireworks or cheerleaders. The former Spurs never made any promises of “not 1, not 2, not 3….” There unofficial arrival as Toronto Raptors occurred in game number 2, in front of a national TV audience, against the pre-season Eastern Conference favourite, Boston Celtics. The double block was especially sweet as it essentially ended any momentum of a Celtics comeback and, in my extremely biased opinion, put Jayson Tatum in a tailspin that he has yet to recover from.
Sully: I remember watching the double-block live. I was shook by it, but as the season went on, I forgot about it. I had to watch this play a few more times to be amazed again. Like, they both went up from their side of the basket to running all the way down the court and jumping at the same time to block Tatum’s fastbreak layup. It just goes to show that both Danny and Kawhi’s defensive instincts on this play alone are what makes them such good players. This double block was just a taste of fans would get to see from the then-new Raptors on defense.
2. Kawhi’s No-Look Steal Against the Timberwolves
Josh: Sometimes you just have to see something for yourself. Like, people can tell you the Grand Canyon is amazing, and you can look at as many photos of it as possible, but nothing will ever replicate what it’s actually like. The same might be said for Kawhi’s defense. We’ve seen the highlights. We’ve seen the stats. To actually see him turn his back on the ball to stick with his man but still make the play on the ball? Amazing. Kawhi didn’t see the ball, but everyone who saw that play had their eyes opened to his defensive brilliance.
Dylan: This play showcased both sides of Kawhi’s defensive aptitude: impressive instincts, and physical prowess. He knew the exact trajectory of that pass (despite turning away before the ball was thrown) and, somehow, contorted his body in time to gobble it up. Being one of his first plays in Toronto, this was Kawhi’s way of telling us that he is no mere mortal. He is Kawhi Leonard, lord and saviour, and shall not be trifled with.
Conor: There’s an old thing Steve Nash said about greatness. Which is basically this: “Nobody who is worried about being cool can be great.” This play reminds me of me, as a kid, playing street-hockey in too-big pads, flinging myself every which way to stop that super dirty tennis ball. I did not look cool. (I wasn’t great either, but that was as close as I was gonna get.) Kawhi doesn’t care about cool. He doesn’t think: “ooh, that might look bad.” He just goes and gets that damn ball. Remember his first gift to us was this:
That should have clued us in to his greatness right there.
Thomas: I honestly don’t think I had ever seen a steal like this before Kawhi did it. It would have been totally reasonable for him to not dive on the floor for any ball that soon into the season after missing basically a year due to an injury, never mind for a steal most would have no realistic shot at getting. We should have known this was a precursor for a special season with Kawhi.
Mitch: This happened so early in the season that I had almost forgotten about it (I had fully forgotten that OG did damn near the same thing this year too). This was game 5 of the NBA season and Kawhi was still visibly rusty (for him) after playing so little in his prior season. For some, this was an introductory moment into Kawhi’s defensive brilliance and for others, this was a sweet, sweet reminder that Kawhi Leonard is a damn savant.
Jay: Kawhi’s not known for being flashy. Menacing defense and mid-range jumpers don’t make for many SportsCentre highlights. However, on an unassuming Wednesday evening in late October — his fifth game as a Raptor — Kawhi pulled out the best he-did-what move of the season. If the pass wasn’t thrown or in lob-form, Kawhi would’ve looked like an ankle-broken fool. But he knew better. He’s Kawhi freaking Leonard. His spidey senses told him a bounce pass was coming and he dove. If the no. 3 highlight didn’t announce his arrival, then this surely did.
Sully: This steal still blows my mind. For this all to happen, Kawhi had to (1) know Gorgui Dieng was going to pass to Jimmy Butler, (2) know it was going to be a bounce pass so that he would dive, and (3) he had to anticipate the exact moment when to dive to make the steal because he had his back turned away from the ball! Unreal.
1. Kawhi-Kyle Game-Winning Steal Followed by Kawhi’s Dunk vs. DeMar DeRozan
Josh: Cathartic. That’s what this moment felt like. Like all of the doubts and fears we all had about the Kawhi Leonard trade, and his health, and losing our franchise icon, were all washed away. Here it was right in front of us: A guy that didn’t always come through for us, now failing to come through for his new team, and the guy we got for him doing the opposite — sealing a victory in the highest-leverage moments, with a defensive play no less (with a little help from Kyle Lowry). Everything about this moment is perfect.
Dylan: If this play wasn’t going to be ranked number one, I would’ve quit writing out of protest. Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan were all involved in the same pivotal moment that decided the outcome of one of the most anticipated games in Raptors history – and, the Raptors won?? Somebody pinch me, I must be dreaming! Don’t get me wrong, I love DeMar (as should we all), but this epitome of basketball catharsis felt damn good. For just a fleeting moment, it felt as if the years of playoff heartbreak were all worth it.
Conor: The legend of Kawhi Leonard tells of a sea-born God. An eight-armed monster that terrorizes any poor mariner foolish enough to sail into its domain. For most of the season that creature, the one who makes it dangerous to even dribble near him, hadn’t truly ascended from the depths. On this play, Kawhi was in all his eight-armed glory — poking away a ball that DeMar DeRozan thought was as safe as a buried treasure. The resulting slam didn’t just ignite a building, or win a game. It served as foreshadowing for the rest of the NBA. The beast lives! And it is hungry for your handle.
(Oh, and Kyle helped too.)
Thomas: This was the easy no. 1 play of the Raptors season, as bittersweet as it was. The atmosphere was incredible the entire night due to the return of long-time star DeMar DeRozan, but when it came down to it, the Raptors two best players came up clutch when it mattered most. It was also the perfect why Masai made this deal in the first place.
Mitch: If this isn’t the most savourable moment of the season, we here at Raptors HQ don’t really know what is. It has everything you could ever want in a prototypical sports highlight: situational importance, narratives galore, drama and victory (or bitter defeat if you’re a DeMar stan). Kawhi and Lowry teaming up to snatch victory out of DeMar DeRozan’s hands is the ultimate highlight of the Toronto Raptors year.
Jay: Presented without comment:
Sully: This play is just one of the many reasons Masai Ujiri went out and traded for Kawhi. I knew the second the Klaw went up and pressured DeMar in the backcourt that something was going to happen. I swear! Did I know it was going to turn out to be a steal or a tough pass for DeMar to make to avoid the trap? Maybe. What I didn’t expect was for Lowry to run up on his best friend to help Kawhi get the steal and dunk. This play was one heck of a turn of events that will stand as the best plays in franchise history for what it truly means to the organization.
That wraps up our look back at this season’s top plays. Be sure to tune into the playoffs where more excitement is sure to come!