Kawhi Leonard is still the key to the redemption of the Raptors in series



TORONTO – For a few moments Saturday, Kawhi Leonard looked like the exorcist that the Toronto Raptors had come to help them get rid of many years of post-season torment.

But a frenzied fourth quarter featuring a certain Leonard, the silver shot of a brave young Orlando Magic team and some last-minute mistakes, caused the Toronto 104-101 win against Orlando in the opening game. among the most accomplished stars of the game, the Raptors are falling behind another series of first round.

From the beginning, Leonard spearheaded Toronto. While he was dazzled by an effective 11-point first quarter in which he was perfect on the field and perfectly defensive, Toronto seemed poised to win a decent victory for a worker worthy of a 2-seed well arranged against a young outsider simply delighted. play basketball in the playoffs. When Leonard went scoreless in the second period – 0-in-5, his worst quarterback as Raptor -, his team spat a score at 30-9 and was found threatened by a point before at 16 years old. best defensive stretch of the game in the third quarter.

Then came the fourth, with the Raptors in a painfully familiar place – crush and cash out the opening game of a series they are supposed to win. Establishing historical parallels with teams with very different staffs, playing styles, coaches and shenanigans has always been a thorny exercise, but pattern recognition is a fun thing for those who are steeped in history.

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Toronto has acquired Leonard, a most valuable player in the NBA finals, to modify this course. It's a player steeped in post-season glory, imported from an organization in San Antonio that downplayed the regular season before it was fashionable. In early March, while Leonard was resting about every three games, Leonard called the regular season 82 practices. "The playoffs, it's when it's time to tie them up," he said. The quote was further proof that the most guarded and taciturn voices are often the most revealing.

This comment also represented Leonard's deepest attraction for Toronto. Mastering the regular season does not mean what it was for the Raptors. The glory of the post-season is a difficult obstacle to overcome for an organization that has had five years of disappointment during the playoffs, but you would never know it by listening to Leonard.

When asked on Friday whether his experience in San Antonio would help the Raptors overcome the bump, Leonard replied, "What bump?" Collective memory, aspirations built on years of grief, fatal collisions with LeBron James – none of this matters to Leonard. And that could be very useful for the Toronto Raptors.

For most of the fourth quarter, when he was back at 6:43 and the Raptors led by four, Leonard realized that hope. When Magic striker, Aaron Gordon, knocked at bay, Leonard responded by training and fainting on Gordon. And when the game broke the two-minute mark in regulation time, Leonard seemed to have seized control with the kind of sequence that only a handful of NBA players can orchestrate as he pleases.

Leonard stepped back and drained a three-pointer of the dribble to tie the score at 99-99, then defended Gordon at the opposite end, causing an unbalanced jumper. With his big right hand, Leonard grabbed the rebound, which propelled his solo flight with the score tied. Kawhi compared Gordon, one of the most impressive track and field specimens of the game, and then attacked him with a dribble for southpaw. Leonard parked a little before the hallway, raised and nailed his flat jumper over Gordon to give the Raptors a lead with a little more than a minute.

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After Marc Gasol misses the shot, D.J. Augustin takes it on the other end and loses the winning 3-pointer of the game for the Magic.

When the Magic called timeout and the crowd broke, the bet of trader DeMar DeRozan for only a guaranteed year of Leonard's is highlighted. When the Raptors came to an agreement, they had no certainty about Leonard's state of health after missing all except nine games of the 2017-18 season due to the fact that he was in trouble. tendinopathy in his right quad, a mysterious wound whose treatment plan had resulted in a gap between Leonard and the Spurs. Leonard did not assure them that he would stay in Toronto in the long run.

Still, the Raptors were assured of what Leonard could do at both ends of the field when big games were up for grabs. The last two MVPs in the finals who switched teams under their best gave a title to their new employer. Before Leonard was hurt, he was indomitable.

That's why Leonard and the Raptors has implemented the most aggressive charge management program ever designed in the NBA. Leonard has played no back-to-back matches in the regular season, finishing at 60 games and 2040 minutes to ensure his health during the Raptors playoff series. In the language of sports scientists, Leonard is one of the most successful and well-intentioned athletes in basketball, the kind of player whose every move is performed at an unusual scale and frequency. This is a machine that requires careful maintenance, as Leonard and the Raptors have cooperated to perform this season with a comprehensive performance program.

"I'm thinking of all the hard work that I've done, just to be happy to be able to play that first game," said Leonard on Saturday. "I feel much better than myself."

The Raptors fell to 1-10 all-time in the first game of the first round after their 104-101 loss to the Magic. Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images

Without the 48th minute Saturday, the Raptors would welcome this recovery after a 25-point effort on 18 attempts. But the smallest athlete on the floor, Magic Point Guard D.J. Augustin reversed the result with the last two goals of the game. The first, an acrobatic driving lay-up after turning the corner to Danny Green, equalized the Magic.

After an empty possession of the Raptors, Augustine, one of the most talented pick and roll practitioners in the league, received a big screen from his favorite dance partner, the Nikola Vucevic Center in Orlando. The Raptors retaliated with two elite defenders to Leonard and Marc Gasol – another reminder that the new Raptors model is filled with corks of experience on the ground.

But at a time that produced what Augustine would call the biggest shot of his career, he met no resistance as he dribbled left behind the screen – not Leonard arguing over him. Vucevic's screen with his long reach, and no Gasol coming out on a switch.

"Our cover was to fly over the screen and make sure Marc is there to help, and then at home," said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. "It seemed like Kawhi thought it was a switch and that he went to hold Vucevic, and Mark was still in the high position but not in the position of the switch – so that was him given the piece to remove it. "

The Raptors were able to give Leonard a reasonably clean look and equalize the point after entering the ball in the first 3 seconds of the end, but Leonard fired a ball that fell out of bounds.

In recent years, a sense of trepidation had invaded Toronto after a first-game loss, but there was not much detectable anxiety after the game. Kyle Lowry's unbranded performance of 0-7 was made in the wake (in the classic Lowry fashion, he led the Raptors to plus-11, the only one going into positive territory), just as the exit 14 to 29 of The Magic from the outside of the bow. Augustine's exploits were the product of chance ("it's always somebody different, and he has a good game," said Lowry), as well as the remote Raptors' struggles ("We had some nice looks" – almost all members of the Toronto list and staff).

Maybe it's a measure of the value of Leonard, the luxury of knowing a closer with the identification information is on the scene. You can withstand losses without difficulty, even in series, with the assurance that the probabilities will correct the negative consequences. A defeat of the first game that could have triggered the panic is now only the fruit of chance and can be corrected by those who know a thing or two.

"It's the playoffs, you go up and down," said Leonard. "Towards the end of the game, they shot in the corner and we missed some shots in the far right."


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