June 9, 2019, 8:56 pm
Discipline manifests itself in many forms, but it has become the Raptors’ defining trait. Sometimes it emerges in the form of patience, others in trust and others still in assurance. It is their steady commitment to the craft, their resolute belief in doing things “their way,” that has put them one win away from a championship.
The Raptors know who they are and what they need to be in every moment, and it is a demeanor that extends from the top down.
Kawhi Leonard has imbued the Raptors with a steely calm thanks in large part to the fact that he can get whatever he wants, whenever he wants. The knowledge that Kawhi can turn on takeover mode at a moment’s notice lends the team an assuredness that enables them to stick to plan. A first quarter where one player accounts for 14 of 17 points while everyone else shoots 1-for-13 can be enough to break a team, especially with all signs pointing to a big night from their opponent.
Leonard was able to put the team on his back and carry them through the early storm. Though he finished scoreless in the second quarter, the Raptors entered the half trailing by only four points despite shooting 34.1 percent from the field, a ghastly 6-of-25 on open shots and 2-of-17 from downtown. That is not possible without Leonard, and when all else fails he remains the ace in the hole.
He rose to the occasion again in the third quarter, nailing what Fred VanVleet described as a pair of “F-you shots” (Editor’s note: yep) and giving Toronto its first lead on the evening. Leonard ensured that the Warriors would not put together one of their signature third-quarter bursts, outdoing his opening frame by dropping 17 points on 10 used possessions.
The Raptors could easily have folded in Game 4. You had the backdrop of this being the final season, and potentially final game, at Oracle. You had the emotional lift of Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney returning from injury. The specter of the Third Quarter Warriors loomed, especially with Game 2’s memory still relatively fresh. Most pressingly, the Raptors faced an early blitz thanks to their own horrific start against a team trying to level a series.
They remained composed and looked entirely unaffected by their first two quarters, trusting that they would be able to work their way back into the game with a little sharper execution and some faith in their own abilities.
It’s a sentiment that Nick Nurse reinforced in his interview on the ABC broadcast. He felt that the Raptors were doing a good job of generating quality shots and implored the team to stick with the Warriors on the defensive end, knowing that their offensive process would lead to a breakthrough.
Nurse was correct.
Through two quarters Toronto shot 0-of-9 on 3-pointers classified as wide-open by the NBA (the closest defender being six or more feet away from the shooter) and saw that correct with a 5-of-7 performance on the same looks in the second half.
It’s been a largely outstanding postseason for Nurse overall. Despite some low-hanging fruit that’s been left unpicked, the vast majority of Nurse’s adjustments have yielded dividends, and the times where he’s decided to stick to his guns have generally worked out as well.
Nurse’s big adjustment for this series has been to start VanVleet in place of Danny Green in the second half from Game 3 onward. While the defensive matchup of VanVleet on Steph Curry appeared to be the driving factor behind the decision, Nurse also likes the look of two point guards to help push the pace and get the ball moving.
It has paid off, with the Raptors scoring 36 and 37 points in the last two third quarters, scoring above 1.50 points per possession in each.
From the offseason, the Raptors have stressed the need to be flexible. They aimed to get themselves comfortable with a number of different lineups and tactics so they would be ready for any moment. That Nurse has decided to fix what wasn’t necessarily broken (especially given Green’s great Game 3), in the Finals of all places, is the greatest endorsement of the philosophy.
Of course, there’s also the box-and-one zone coverage that flummoxed the Warriors at the end of Game 2 that made a brief reappearance in the third quarter of Game 4. While it’s been deemed “janky,” the box-and-one forced Steve Kerr to quickly plug Klay Thompson back into the game as the Raptors ripped off a quick 6-0 run. Thompson, on a night where he returned from a hamstring strain, was given less than two minutes on the bench because of the Raptors’ infrequently-used defensive scheme. Nurse’s only allegiance is to what will produce the best results in the moment.
Such a move cuts two ways. Nurse has to trust that his players can jump right into the deep end and execute an unorthodox coverage, while the players have to trust that Nurse is making the right decision. Pulling a new rabbit out of the hat can be hard to pitch, especially to a group that’s been excellent in its base looks from start to finish.
What’s important is the clarity of the decision. In previous postseasons, new lineups and schemes resembled the Raptors grasping at straws, desperately trying to find anything that might work as they punched upwards. The season-long commitment to trying new things has allowed them to get a good idea of what work and what won’t. That the Raptors have never strayed from experimentation opens a world of possibilities now.
It helps that the Raptors, again borrowing from Leonard, have been able to stay poised throughout their run. It’s a great comfort to know that new ideas will not rock the boat to the point of capsize. Their steadiness allows them to keep going back to the well, with the players knowing that anyone is capable of stepping up to support Leonard’s brilliance if needed. There have been stretches where the Raptors leave that opportunity unseized, but in the end they always find someone.
In Game 4 that someone was Serge Ibaka, who came alive to deliver 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting, four rebounds and another pair of blocks. He was good enough for the Raptors to dust off a super-big lineup with Ibaka and Marc Gasol sharing the frontcourt, and it was his play that helped Toronto hang on despite only five points from Leonard in the fourth quarter. Ibaka even hit a jumper to end Golden State’s brief attempt at zone defense:
But beyond the individual contributions of a second main character, the Raptors are disciplined in their team game. Much has been made of Toronto working deep into the shot clock, and while they were the beneficiaries of some good shot-making earlier in the series, Game 4 saw them assemble a breakthrough of sorts.
The slow offense was not one of panic, but one that was deliberately bleeding clock while knowing that they could still generate a fantastic shot in a pressure spot. Of the Raptors’ nine field goals in the fourth quarter, seven came in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock. Of those seven, one was a catch-and-shoot three, five were either drives, layups or baby hooks, and one was a 17-foot jumper from Pascal Siakam.
There was a lot of this going on, with the Raptors getting some back-breaking buckets by staying patient and executing under pressure.
Much of that execution falls on the point guard, and Game 4 was yet another strong outing from Kyle Lowry. He finished just 3-of-12 from the field but ended up with seven assists, three steals and dozens of correct decisions. Not to mention that one of his three buckets was in essence the dagger, a layup that stretched the lead to 14 with 1:33 to go.
Because the Raptors can always count on Leonard to go get himself a bucket, they’ve fallen prey to bouts of ball-watching. It is easy to be consumed by greatness, especially when one has a front-row seat. It is Lowry’s job to prevent that from happening. He is the one who gets the other Raptors involved; who shakes them awake when they need to snap back to attention.
Credit also goes to Leonard, who is slowly but surely improving at reading the doubles and traps that the Warriors are sending his way. Earlier postseason rounds put a massive strain on Leonard, but he has been a much more decisive playmaker and has been able to trust that his teammates will come through with timely plays of their own. The Raptors have not needed to revamp their offense – they have only had to ask that Leonard speed up his decision-making a shade. There is more work to be done, but there are signs of progress.
What they have drawn up will work, as long as the other Raptors trust Leonard to make the right pass and Leonard trusts the other Raptors to capitalize on their advantages.
Here’s an instance where Leonard sucks in an additional defender and promptly kicks to a wide-open Danny Green, who had missed his first six shots of the evening. A dominant Kawhi could’ve made a case to rise up over Thompson once Curry flails past, but Green’s earlier misfires do not sway Leonard’s decision here. The right play remains the right play, and it is the one the Raptors are dead-set on running.
Here’s another play where Leonard makes a pass through extra pressure that leads to an automatic basket. Siakam gets credit for his read on the play as well, but Leonard making this type of pass can break down all that the Warriors are trying to accomplish on the defensive end.
The following play may be the best representation Toronto’s faith in their playstyle. It begins with Kawhi passing over another trap, with Ibaka giving him a good outlet option. Ibaka follows that up with an uncharacteristically quick read, firing a pass away from his original turn to a wide-open Lowry. With the shot-clock dwindling, Lowry would be forgiven for firing up an inarguably good shot. Instead, he fakes towards an entirely vacant corner and the swings the ball right back to Ibaka, who can waltz in for a dunk as the Warriors get lazy in their rotation. The Raptors know the next step of the play before the ball arrives, and good opportunities do not dissuade them from sticking to script and finding the best one.
A THING OF BEAUTY pic.twitter.com/HlCPFITxRn
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) June 8, 2019
Above the game-to-game fray, this season has required a leap of faith from the roster. Beyond the change behind the bench, the Raptors had their regular season dominated by Leonard’s load management. Outwardly it looked like a tough sell given that the franchise had no serious success to hang its hat on. Eschewing the regular season is the sort of move that obvious contenders can make, but is hardly the territory of plucky also-rans.
Remember, this is the same team that saw VanVleet succumb to injury in a meaningless final game last season.
The Raptors bought into the plan despite the bumps in the road it may have caused, ignoring the pursuit of the top seed with June basketball in mind. The extenuating circumstance of Leonard’s free agency made the decision easier, but the organization never backed off their commitment to his rest program, even as presumed East favorites in Boston and Philadelphia laid their weaknesses bare. The dedication to the process is paying off in spades.
Though they have not, the Raptors look like a team that has seen it all before; level-headed and always in control. They are aware of what they want to do and how they need to go about it, and the amount of discipline it might require is not a concern. This all-business version of Toronto has yet to lose a battle of wills this postseason.
The Raptors have shown no panic throughout the season, from the biggest of pictures down to the smallest detail. They have always known what makes them elite, even if it has taken outside observers a long time to catch on. There have been tweaks, yes, but Toronto has never completely abandoned its core groups or principles. This is who the Raptors are, and they are damn good – good enough to be considered the best team in the league.
They fittingly sit in the driver’s seat, one game from proving it definitively.
1 – Klay Thompson returned from a left hamstring strain and certainly didn’t look any worse for wear with 28 points and six 3-pointers in a whopping 42 minutes of action. Oracle was rocking with each of his buckets, and their loss is a major missed opportunity given the emotional impact of a returning star. Thompson said on Sunday that he’s between 80 and 90 percent, and there weren’t any red flags that would make the Raptors think they can go at him barring a reaggravation. He did pull up limping a bit at one point, but obviously he was able to finish out a night of heavy work.
2 – The Raptors tried to bring extra help when Kyle Lowry was covering Klay Thompson in the post, and more often than not Thompson was able to make a quick pass out for a good shot. There’s a six-inch height disparity there and Thompson is obviously a good-enough shooter to make good on those opportunities, so it’ll be interesting to see how both teams proceed. The Warriors can milk that for points no matter what, but the Raptors might choose to lean on Lowry’s generally-strong post defense and invite some slowed-down possessions from Thompson inside the arc. It seems preferable to encouraging off-ball movement while Thompson reads around a double. On the flip side, Marc Gasol did a strong job as the second defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Conference Finals, so it’s not the craziest idea in the world if the Raptors trust they can execute better than they ever have.
3 – Kevon Looney made his surprise return from a cartilage fracture, posting 10 points and six rebounds in 20 minutes. He’s really the only center that can hang on defense against the Raptors, though he’s clearly not right. Looney had a few opportunities to go for dunks but chose the soft lay-in, and he missed a pair of free throws in the fourth. He was still energetic enough to make a positive impact on the game, and he’s staring down a gargantuan task with how helpless Golden State’s other non-shooting bigs are.
4 – Leonard spent most of his defensive minutes on Andre Iguodala in Game 4, which is a shift after the Raptors had him dabble with the Draymond Green responsibilities. That was likely done to have Leonard try and disrupt Green-Curry actions, but he hasn’t been that effective in slowing Curry down, so it’s probably more useful to have him play free safety off a non-ball-handler. He’s obviously going to go to Kevin Durant if/when that return happens, and the trickle-down effect will be fascinating.
5 – DeMarcus Cousins is filling the Eric Bledsoe memorial spot, in that his place on this list will serve to highlight how brutal his play has been with a quick deviation to point out a strong 15 minutes over the course of the series. Boogie was a turnstile yet again, only Game 4 featured lots of early turnovers to add to his defensive woes. The leash has to be as short as possible in Game 5, because Cousins has had one good half through four games and looked nearly unplayable at all other times.
6 – Golden State won the rebounding battle 29-18 in the first half, largely because of the Raptors’ atrocious shooting to open the game. It helped lead to a 16-3 advantage in transition points, and this looks like one of the cases where a team’s offense may feed into their defense rather than the other way around. Fast-break points ended up 32-19, Warriors, even with the Raptors holding a 19-11 edge in turnovers. Battling on live rebounds, or better yet just hitting shots, will elevate an already-lethal defense.
7 – Alfonzo McKinnie came in and gave Golden State some great minutes in the first half, with his aggression resulting in two points and a nice offensive rebound. He also picked up three fouls, which stung, and the Raptors mercilessly went at him with Kawhi Leonard whenever the two were matched up one on one. Kawhi cooked McKinnie for nine points on 4-of-5 shooting in just seven possessions. There’s a place for McKinnie in this series considering how little shooting the Warriors have in their second unit, but they cannot leave him on an island in that matchup. For the series Leonard has 30 points in 39 possessions against McKinnie, shooting 67 percent while taking 11 trips to the line.
8 – Norman Powell was back to the eighth man spot, unsurprising given Toronto’s offensive struggle early on. He didn’t do much to help the cause there but just having a player who attacks with confidence goes a long way in the big picture. It’s a much better fit for Toronto’s patient offense than McCaw’s hesitance, though the two will probably split minutes depending on game flow once again.
9 – A competent night out of the officials, which feels like skipping through a summer meadow after the last two games. They even called an offensive foul on Curry for kicking his legs out on a jumper. What a world.
10 – Barring a return of Kevin Durant, there’s no big button left for Steve Kerr to push. The Bucks ended up in a similar position with their backs against the wall and had no sane changes left to make. Golden State has way more firepower and has been through adversity before, but it’s going to be fascinating to see what gets adjusted if Durant doesn’t return. At this point it’s on the Warriors to play better defense, because there’s no help coming from a tactical change.
December 8, 2019, 7:03 pmFred VanVleetPG, Toronto Raptors
Fred VanVleet (right knee contusion) will not return to Sunday's game versus the Sixers.
VanVleet left Sunday;s game during the second quarter and was followed by training staff. The injury is being called a contusion, so it doesn't sound too serious, but the Raptors will let VanVleet have the rest of the night off. Norman Powell would be the biggest beneficiary if VanVleet is forced to miss any time.
Source: Josh Lewenberg on Twitter
December 8, 2019, 6:48 pmDerrick FavorsPF, New Orleans Pelicans
Derrick Favors (personal) is questionable for Monday's game versus the Pistons.
Favors has been away from the team ever since the death of his mother and the team is not rushing him back until he is ready to return. Jaxson Hayes will continue to benefit if Favors needs another night off.
Source: Pelicans PR on Twitter
December 8, 2019, 6:42 pmCory JosephPG, Sacramento Kings
Cory Joseph will start during Sunday's game versus the Mavs.
Joseph was questionable heading into Friday's game and played as well. Joseph is only worth owning if you are in need of assists.
Source: Mike Peasley on Twitter
December 8, 2019, 6:15 pmTyson ChandlerC, Houston Rockets
Tyson Chandler (illness) is being listed as doubtful for Monday's game versus the Kings
Chandler was a late scratch for Saturday's game and it looks like the veteran will need another games rest. Isaiah Hartenstein will see the bulk of the back up center minutes if Chandler were to rest.
Source: NBA Injury Report
December 8, 2019, 5:54 pmJerami GrantSF, Denver Nuggets
Jerami Grant was hot from deep going 5-of-7 from behind the arc to go along with 15 points and two rebounds.
Grant was dialed in from deep and took seven of his eight shot attempts from there, He's been playing much better as of late, but Paul Millsap will continue to be a roadblock in his way.
December 8, 2019, 5:50 pmMarvin Bagley IIIPF, Sacramento Kings
Marvin Bagley (right thumb fracture) has been ruled out of Sunday's game versus the Mavs.
Bagley has been questionable for the last few games and seems to be in line to return at some point this week. The frontcourt will be a bit off a mess upon his return, but don't rush to drop anyone until the situation pans out. Nemanja Bjelica will contiue to start while Bagley is out.
Source: James Ham on Twitter
December 8, 2019, 5:48 pmJamal MurrayPG, Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray scored 21 points, five assists and three rebounds on 7-of-17 shooting during Sunday's loss to the Nets.
Murray also managed to chip in with three treys and went 4-of-4 from the charity stripe. Murray has been playing well as of late and will look to keep the ball rolling against the Sixers on Tuesday.
December 8, 2019, 5:39 pmNikola JokicC, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic lead the Nuggets in scoring with 24 points, while chipping in 11 rebounds and six assists on 10-of-21 shooting during Sunday's loss to the Nets.
Jokic has now put together two straight solid performances and is showing signs of busting out of his slump. Look for him to continue his strong play on Tuesday versus Joel Embiid and the Sixers.
December 8, 2019, 5:35 pmGarrett TempleSG, Brooklyn Nets
Garrett Temple continued his recent strong play going for 15 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists in Sunday's win over the Nuggets.
Temple has been a worthwhile streamer with Irving out and it doesn't look like the he will be back for at least a few more weeks. His field goal percentage won't be the best, but he provides moderate value in 3-pointers and and points.
December 8, 2019, 5:32 pmJarrett AllenC, Brooklyn Nets
Jarret Allen played well dropping 19 point, 11 rebounds and two assists on 7-of-13 shooting during Sunday's win over the Nuggets.
Allen continues to outplay DeAndre Jordan and is is the center worth owning in Brooklyn. Allen's ceiling is somewhat limited to Jordan healthy, but he should continue to see the bulk of the minutes unless going against a bigger bodied center.