It wouldn’t be fair to suggest past editions of the Raptors lacked leadership. Dwane Casey was the ultimate figurehead, the spire around which an entire era of Toronto basketball was built. DeMar DeRozan had charisma. Revered by his teammates for his hard work and knack for buckets, all the while serving as fan liaison both in good times and bad. Few dudes have or will ever carry that kind of gravitas in Toronto. Even DeRozan’s surly sidekick, Kyle Lowry, while usually mum for the cameras, can’t be accused of being a passenger.
But five playoff runs ranging from uneven to Wizards taught us all something about the construction of the Raptors. Even with all those de facto leaders, there never existed a singular pyramid-topper who could unite the entire squad and provide it with direction when times were lean. Basically, the Raptors needed someone to play the role of dad.
Masai Ujiri spent the last year working to fill that paternal hole with his shrewd, often unpopular dealings. In the third quarter of Game 2 against the Magic on Tuesday, it became clear — if it wasn’t already — that he had succeeded in his search. In fact, it seems Ujiri found the Raptors not just one, but a pair of new father figures.
Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol boast all the traits a strong parental unit’s gotta have, all of which were on display in Game 2 against the Magic. The third quarter stands as their most comprehensive parenting clinic to date.
Parents have to be steady under pressure. Toronto was facing plenty of it, as is customary, over the two agonizingly days between the Game 1 loss and Tuesday’s chance to even the series. The Raptors weren’t exactly white-knuckling at the end of the first half in Game 2, but the game still had a touch of wobble to it.
Leonard and Danny Green were stuck on three fouls through 24 minutes, and Toronto’s 51-39 cushion felt a tad phoney considering the Magic’s ghastly first half from the free-throw line (8-of-16). A little bit of a gusto from Orlando out of the gate and the nerves and looming diarrhea of Game 1 would have come rushing back.
In less than three minutes, however, Leonard and Gasol all but ensured the Game 2 result would be much smoother on Toronto’s collective intestinal tract — Kawhi with his silky brutishness, Gasol with his guttural defensive commands and thumping, freeing screens on the other end.
Toronto’s fatherly duo combined to score the opening 11 points of the quarter, each slinging one assist to the other, and winning that three-minute skirmish 11-6. Any illusions of an Orlando comeback were quickly exposed as mirage.
All the more impressive was that Kawhi steadied the ship while negotiating foul trouble, with Marc Davis and his eager whistle glaring away on the baseline, no less. He’d been coping with three fouls on his ledger since early in the second quarter. And in a truly shocking turn of events, he remained calm about it.
“Just can’t be as aggressive as I want to on the defensive end, so really just trying to play as perfect as possible,” said Leonard of how he responded to picking that third foul. Apparently playing perfectly is just a thing he can decide to do when the mood strikes.
“Just getting to spots early and just making sure I don’t reach and get a cheap one. That’s all I can do,” Leonard added. “I don’t foul as much during the regular season, and just kept trying to play my game.”
Any strong set of parents has symbiosis; Kawhi playing ‘his game’ on Tuesday was in large part tied to Gasol.
As Zach Lowe alluded to in his pre-Game 2 primer for ESPN, the Raptors didn’t really lean on the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop in Game 1 the way you probably should when Nikola Vucevic is the opposing centre. Vooch is just asking to be put in the blender, and to open the third quarter on Tuesday, Leonard and Gasol smashed the puree button. Upon seeing this sequence live, it became clear Vucevic was utterly screwed at about the 0:08 mark:
Gasol and Leonard essentially spent three minutes off the top of the half doing yard work while the kids watched and took notes on how to diagonally stripe the lawn.
The next time down, Gasol sets the screen for Leonard off the ball, befuddling Vucevic and Aaron Gordon again, freeing Gasol to can a triple off Kawhi’s pass to the wing. For fun, I left in the tail end of the previous defensive possession where Dad 1 and Dad 2 choked off the D.J. Augustin-Vucevic pick-and-roll at the source.
On that note: get a load of those protective instincts, defending the Raptors against the thing that poses the most danger to the team. Extreme dad stuff right there.
Gasol and Leonard did a bang-up job neutralizing the Augustin-Vucevic threat in Game 2. Augustin had 25 points on his own in Game 1; he and his big man combined for just 15 on 4-of-15 from the field in Tuesday’s series-evener.
“A lot of that starts with Marc’s physicality and his IQ,” said Nurse of the Raptors slowing Vucevic down for a second-straight game. “The biggest thing you’ve got to do, not with Vucevic, with any really good post player is try to push the catches out … so they’re starting from a point farther away. They’re less comfortable, the percentages obviously go down the further away you can keep them.
“Just think he played him real physical, played him real smart, didn’t give him anything real easy. He did a great job on him.”
Leonard did his part to hinder the source of Orlando’s flow, too. Per NBA.com’s match-up data, the Magic managed just six points on the seven possessions for which Leonard was Augustin’s primary defender.
Both he and Gasol hawked steals all over the damn place in Game 2. Gasol’s four swipes were some shit out of a game of Octopus — rather than lunge into passing lanes, more often than not he just kinda shot is arms out at opportune times to snag would-be Orlando passes without having to move his feet. FitBit will never sponsor him. Skechers might though, because dads need arch support.
One of the most fatherly things one can do is to impart lessons upon the youths they’re ushering through life. Leonard and Gasol surely have behind-the-scenes nuggets of advice to pass along from their many years of Western Conference playoff wars, each and every one of them valuable. But there’s something to be said for a tangible, hands-on lesson — whether it’s about replacing a car part or how to suck out an opponent’s soul — that the spoken word can’t quite replicate.
Everything about Leonard’s Game 2 performance was worth trying to copy. And Pascal Siakam, who’s been good — albeit a tad squirrelly — through the series’ first two games, was just trying to take it all in.
“He was great,” said Siakam of Leonard’s 37-point, 23-shot showing. “Just seeing the type of shots that he was making and the way he was playing tonight — he was in foul trouble, too. The way he was playing with all of those fouls, and he’s still being himself and playing like he’s supposed to, it’s pretty impressive for me just to watch.”
He went on in amazement.
“It was good to watch because for me, when I get two fouls, I kind of get nervous. I don’t know what to do. Just seeing him being himself and on offense, being smart, it was pretty impressive.”
What’s a father figure if not someone who can inspire that kind of wonder.
Leonard and Gasol have brought a calm to the Raptors that has not existed in a first round before. Ahead of Game 2, there wasn’t much talk of the heavy implications of going down 0-2 — at least not the same as in the Indy or Milwaukee series of recent years. The Vegas line of Raps by 10.5 line didn’t seem laughable. It felt right. Customary Toronto fan anxieties aside, it felt like a Raptors win was about as sure a bet as you’ll find this NBA post-season.
A lot of those relative feelings of coziness radiate from Gasol, and especially Leonard. Not only do those two wrap you in the soothing embrace of a hearty winter stew — one with defensive smarts, the other with the ability to swing a game on offense entirely by his damn self — they lift the burden of leading off of everyone else.
Maybe Lowry just wasn’t built to absorb the heat of the playoffs head on. That doesn’t make him any less great at the actual playing of basketball — he’s awesome at that part, Game 1s notwithstanding, apparently. But with the team’s two new wizened old souls offering insulation, he’s free to fail and succeed without the fate of the team being directly tied to how he plays as it has been in years past. As Nick Nurse said in the run-up to the series, this team can win whether he scores “four or 34.” “Anything more than zero” is well shy of the standard Lowry once had to uphold in order for the Raptors not to crumble.
The responsibility to lead is alleviated for the coach, too. Nurse is in his first year as an NBA head coach. He’s got both the most enviable and difficult job in the league — gifted an uber-talented roster, upon which the stakes are as high as the expectations, while still deep in the process of figuring exactly what kind of coach he wants to be. He’s not Casey. That’s true for many reasons, the most obvious of which being that he’s not yet stuck in his ways. But he’s not immune to making typical rookie coach mistakes. Leonard and Gasol give him cover, though, as he plows his way through coaching adolescence. Gasol’s like a coach on the floor, schemes firmly embedded in his basketball computer brain, orchestrating the Raptors’ menacing defense-on-a-string. Leonard can bail out even the most errant of play calls because he’s just so freaking talented.
It’s not like Leonard and Gasol are infallible. No parents are. No matter how omniscient they may seem, everyone allows an Augustin game-winning three to slip by once in a while. Every parent’s just trying their best to act like they have all the answers, even if they’re freaking the hell out on the inside themselves most of the time.
That’s the kind of collected cool the two shiniest newcomers to the Toronto playoff experience provide. A one game hole against the Magic may not be a terribly adverse situation compared to what the Raptors are sure to face as the calendar creeps into May. But in evening the series Toronto was preordained to win on Tuesday, Leonard and Gasol illustrated why this team’s DNA is so vastly different from the past. This time, the Raptors have some damn adults in the room.