TORONTO — A former Raptors head coach, the one who also happens to be the reigning coach of the year, was fond of the expression that the NBA is a make-or-miss league.
He would deploy it to explain a puzzling loss, usually to mitigate criticism: hey, we played well, but sometimes the shots do not fall. It was a phrase that was used a lot at playoff time.
On Wednesday night against the surging Philadelphia 76ers, the latest edition of Just Another Game for the Raptors as they seek to avoid placing too much significance on any one contest, the Raptors did a lot more missing than making. Toronto players who are not centres and are not Kawhi Leonard combined to shoot 14-for-50 from the field, or 28 per cent. From three-point range, the Raptors’ night could be illustrated with a series of head-slap emojis and the one that looks like a frightened grimace: Non-Kawhis were 3-for-23 from distance, for a sizzling 13 per cent.
Oh, and also: the Raptors won, a 113-102 victory that extended their NBA-best record to 21-5 on the season. Last season, when the Raptors rolled to their franchise-best 59 wins and top seed in the East, they didn’t win their 21st game until Dec. 20.
And so, the biggest lesson that was provided as the Raptors swatted away one of their mean rivals for the East crown, the key difference between this team and previous editions, is this: a group with Kawhi Leonard in it can overcome a lot of problems on a given night.
This has become something of a pattern. With the notable exception of Danny Green, the Raptors’ three-point shooting has been middling at best, with the team ranked 21st in the NBA. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and C.J. Miles are all well off their normal accuracy marks. And yet, they just keep winning. Some of that is because the team still plays good defence, and it still knows how to exploit matchups inside, and it trusts the math that says if you still keep hoisting threes than eventually a spurt of made buckets will change the game. Head coach Nick Nurse said after Wednesday’s game that, on a night when Lowry and Green were 0-for-8 from three-point range at the half, he still knew they had been taking the right shots. They are supposed to make quick passes to find open shots, which they did. And when they are wide open, as they were, “most of our guys are supposed to load it up.” But, clank. And also: clank. “I was recruiting at halftime to see if I could find a guy to make one,” Nurse said. Chris Bosh was sitting courtside, it was noted. “I asked him,” Nurse said with a grin.
That the head coach could afford to be sanguine about all those misses was due in large part to Leonard. He hit five of his six three-point attempts, blatantly disproving the notion that cold shooting is contagious, on a 36-point, nine-rebound, five-steal night. He also utterly terrorized Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons on the defensive end, limiting him to eight points, 11 assists — and seven turnovers. While Leonard is still getting comfortable with his new teammates and he has missed six games as the team limits his workload, he has been stellar in all of the Raptors games shown on national television in the United States, which included Wednesday, part of a special “Toronto All Access” day on ESPN. (Somewhat hilariously, Leonard also did not participate in any pre-taped interviews with the network, sticking to his preference to remain near-mute.)
Nurse admitted afterward that for all the just-another-game talk, Leonard is able to raise his performance for the bigger stage. “For him, it’s interest level,” Nurse said. “There are bigger games than others.” He said he thought you could see that there was a little more jump in his step, as evidenced by a couple of soaring dunks that sent Scotiabank Arena into bedlam.
All of which makes sense. Leonard, 27, went to the Finals with San Antonio when he was a 21-year-old rookie, and he won a Finals MVP a year later when he all he did was guard LeBron James for a whole series. He relishes playing in big games, judging by his performance in them, which is all we can do since no one has any idea what he is thinking.
It has been noted that Toronto’s blistering start is due at least in part to a soft schedule. But now they have recent wins over Golden State and Philadelphia to further polish the resume, both games in which Leonard was sublime. None of that will change the fact that the defining question of this franchise — can they do it in the playoffs? — won’t be answered for several months from now. But for many seasons now, even as they changed the team from NBA afterthought to serious contender, they have lacked the kind of star who could simply take over the game against high-level competition.
The Raptors, for now, have that guy. He wears the number 2 on his jersey.