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Five thoughts on three rounds: The Raptors’ road to the NBA Finals

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What stood out the most from this Raptors team as they broke through for their first-ever Finals appearance? We have thoughts!

NBA Playoffs 2019 Five thoughts recap: Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA Finals start on Thursday, featuring, for the first time ever, the Toronto Raptors. We’ll have all kinds of awesome previews of the matchup with the Golden State Warriors, and the strategies and rotations both teams will likely deploy, right here on RaptorsHQ in the coming days.

First, though, let’s look back at the first three rounds of the 2019 NBA Playoffs, and see what stood out as the Raptors made their historic journey through the postseason.

All Eyes on D

I don’t think you can talk about this Raptors team, and this postseason run, without talking about the team’s defense. It’s extraordinary. The numbers certainly tell the story: 102.4 defensive rating (second best in the playoffs), opponent field goal percentage of 41.7% (second best), 8 steals per game/14.9 opponent turnovers per game (both fifth), 99.6 points per game allowed (second).

The thing is, those numbers don’t even do justice to what it’s like actually watching this team ratchet things up on D, particularly in the highest-leverage situations. The switching and rotating, the closing out on shooters, and, perhaps more importantly, the not closing out against the guys who aren’t a threat to score from outside — looking at you, Ben Simmons and Eric Bledsoe — the team’s collective instinct and intelligence on defense is at a level no Raptors team has ever been.

That defense, obviously, is what gives you confidence is a Raptors fan that, even when the team faced double-digit deficits — as it did in both Games 5 and 6 against Milwaukee — that it could turn things around. You knew the team had stops in them, you knew they could turn defense into offense, and that as soon as those opportunities presented themselves, the Raptors would take advantage.

There’s still room for improvement, of course; in transition, the defense isn’t nearly as strong, and the Bucks used their rebounding advantage to get out and run whenever possible, something the Warriors will also do. But that halfcourt D? It’s not often that I look forward to watching a defensive possession, but with this team, I can’t get enough.

Evolve or Die

I was worried earlier in this postseason about Nick Nurse’s stubbornness when it came to the rotations. I thought his desire to continue playing nine or 10 guys, to playing Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka minutes together, would cost the team dearly.

And now I am here to tell you that Nurse has been excellent with his rotations. The Raptors haven’t made any drastic changes throughout the postseason, they’ve slowly evolved and adapted to what’s working for them, what their opponents are doing, and added the necessary tweaks and adjustments needed to put the Raptors in position to succeed.

Some of these are obvious; we all knew Kawhi Leonard was going to have guard Jimmy Butler and Giannis at some point in each of the last two series. Knowing when to do that is on Nurse, though, and he went to the former late — Game 7, essentially — and the latter early — Game 3 — and each worked out, clearly. Some of these tweaks have been riding a hot hand; Norman Powell was on in Games 3 and 4 against Milwaukee, Fred VanVleet had the juice in Games 5 and 6. And Kawhi Leonard was the only Raptor scoring against Philly, so Nurse rode him.

And yet, other than shortening the rotation to eight players, Nurse hasn’t outright benched anyone. Sure, Danny Green’s minutes are way down the last few games thanks to his shooting slump, but Nurse isn’t replacing him in the starting lineup; his defense is too important, and Nurse is giving him just enough opportunities on offense to see if he has anything to offer.

And then there are the less obvious tweaks. Like running out a two-big lineup in Game 3 against Milwaukee to help settle the team down on the glass. Like using Pascal Siakam more as a screener and ball handler early in possessions n Game 6 against Milwaukee, to help settle him down (of all the Raptors, he seemed like the only one whose nerves got to him).

Nurse has been patient and made the right adjustments all playoffs long, and hasn’t made any knee-jerk reactions or allowed his emotions to influence his decision-making. Remind you of anyone else...?

Poise Counts!

Much has been made following Games 5 and 6 of the Conference Finals how “even-keeled” Kawhi Leonard has been, telling guys to live in the moment, to enjoy it, to just play ball and so on. It’s clear Leonard takes a “seen all this before, not gonna let anything — the score, the clock, the situation, the crowd, the officials, any of it — get to me” approach. And I have to believe that same approach is permeating this team, from top to bottom.

As Raptors fans, we know that attitude and approach hasn’t always been there. Of course, ever player and coach says all the same things — no one ever says they’re nervous or that the moment got to them — but the proof is in the proverbial pudding. Collectively, the Raptors got in their own heads at times in the playoffs, especially against Cleveland. Most notably, all of the missed opportunities at the end of Game 1 against Cleveland last year seemed to just break them, mentally. (How else to explain Dwane Casey starting in injured Fred VanVleet in Game 3 of that series, benching Serge Ibaka?)

This Raptors team has been in higher-pressure situations than any team since the 2016 postseason, and they’ve played with excellent composure throughout. They dropped an embarrassing Game 1 at home against Orlando, then easily beat the Magic four straight. They dropped a tough Game 2 at home against Philly, got embarrassed in Game 3, then buckled down in Game 4, riding Leonard to victory. Game 7 against Philly speaks for itself, of course.

Against Milwuakee, that double-OT Game 3 I think is the real turning point of this Raptors postseason. That’s the game the Raptors always seemed to lose... just like that Game 1 against Cleveland last year. Chances to win in regulation? And the first OT? Lowry fouling out? It would have been easy for the team to fold. And Pascal Siakam? He missed two free throws that would have sealed it in regulation, and then had a chance to redeem himself in double-OT... and hit both. That felt... new, and different.

And then coming back in Games 5 and 6, especially being down big early, on the road... when your best player is nonplussed by this stuff, the other guys follow that lead. Sometimes all it takes is one guy.

(Of course, it helps when that guy is Kawhi freakin’ Leonard.)

Come Together (Right Now)

The Raptors, like the 76ers, were a team that came together late; they moved five players out at the deadline, three of them rotation players, brought in Marc Gasol, and eventually Jeremy Lin, Eric Moreland and Jodie Meeks, who... uh, aren’t rotation players, not at this point. And then there are the injuries; Leonard played only 60 games, Lowry 65, VanVleet 64, Powell 60; OG Anunoby missed multiple games for various injuries and family leave (and he’s still on the shelf following his appendectomy).

So at times, the team seemed to be lacking in chemistry... but I think, finally, these guys are all on the same page.

The starting lineup has played every postseason game, and the rotation has settled into an even eight players. Sure, individual guys will still go hot and cold (see: VanVleet, Fred, and Green, Danny), and sometimes this team is still pass-happy (see: Gasol, Marc) but these guys know their roles, now; this team knows who it is. I didn’t know what their identity was at any point this season, really, but now I do: It’s “we’re gonna lock you down in the half court, turn defense into offense when we can, and run our halfcourt offense through the best damn player in the league, Kawhi Leonard.”

Did the team just need these 18 playoff games to come together? Maybe. If they’d had an extra 15 or so games together in the regular season, maybe they’d’ve won 60+ and cruised through these first three rounds 12-2 or something. But, there’s something to be said about the high-pressure stakes uniting players in pursuit of a common goal.

Whatever the case, the Raptors are playing like a team now, not just a group of guys.

Moments in Time

Playoff runs are always accentuated by moments, the things that stick with you for a long, long time after the season ends. The aborted Raptor playoff runs of the past two years didn’t give us much, but from 2016, I’ll always remember Norm’s dunk against Indiana in Game 5, Kyle’s desperation buzzer-beater against Miami in Game 1, and Bismack Biyombo’s block of LeBron James (and it was a block, goddammit).

This year, there are so many candidates! From Kawhi’s three-pointer to seal Game 3 against Philly, The Bounce (obviously), Siakam’s block on Lopez in the first overtime in Game 3 against Milwaukee, Kawhi’s dunk on Giannis in Game 4, Kawhi’s back-to-back step back threes in Game 5, Kawhi’s dunk on Giannis in Game 6...

But, and I wrote about this the other day, the thing that’s gonna stick with me the most, I think, will be Kyle Lowry’s reaction as the Raptors sealed Game 6 at the free throw line.

There were, of course, plenty of Lowry highlights, both of the conventional kind (back-to-back threes in Game 6) and the Lowry kind (diving on the floor twice to save a loose ball, also in Game 6) but I’ve watched that clip 20+ times now, and it gives me goosebumps every time. To go from Lowry, on the floor, DeMar DeRozan consoling him after Lowry had his shot blocked by Paul Pierce in Game 7 against Brooklyn in 2014, to the fans chanting his name as the Raptors were crowned Eastern Conference Champions...

Kyle deserves all the moments, all the love.

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So here we are! Will the defense, the composure and the chemistry carry through to the Finals? Will we get more moments to add to the list?

I can’t wait to find out.