NBA Playoffs 2019: Raptors' gamble on Kawhi Leonard has already paid off
The Raptors are now four wins away from the NBA Finals, thanks to Kawhi Leonard
Let's be real: The Toronto Raptors probably shouldn't have won Game 7 of their semifinal series against the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday. Kawhi Leonard's buzzer-beating, fading-away, over-the-arms-of-Joel-Embiid corner two probably shouldn't have taken one, two, three, four bounces off the rim and then fallen in. The Raptors probably shouldn't have won a game in which they shot 38 percent from the field and 23 percent from three, and they probably shouldn't have won a series in which they played their best basketball for only about two games.
But they did.
And now that they made it to the second Eastern Conference Finals in franchise history despite a series where you more often saw a less-than-the-best version of the Raptors, you better believe that they have a damn good chance at toppling Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks juggernaut.
The optimized version of the Raptors only appeared in Games 1 and 5 this series. Those games saw Kawhi Leonard looking like the best player on earth, Marc Gasol handling Embiid on the defensive end, and Kawhi's supporting cast (Pascal Siakam in Game 1 and Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Danny Green in Game 5) giving big-time contributions. Their other two wins were nasty, ugly, gut-it-out basketball games where neither team played particularly well, especially on the offensive end. Among the things, the Raptors needed to pull out this series win over the lower seed were various parts of Embiid's body falling apart, whether it was from knee tendinitis, a virus or an upper respiratory infection. They also needed Tobias Harris missing open shots, and Ben Simmons looking like a wallflower half the time on offense, and Brett Brown's offensive attack looking incredibly uninspired and uncreative, no worse than in the waning minutes of Game 7.
Does anyone really think that the Raptors, playing as they did for the majority of this series, would have been able to defeat a Sixers team with an Embiid that was 100 percent healthy and playing as he did in Game 3, starring in the role of two-way MVP?
But they won the series anyway.
You need to win games where you don't play your best if you're going to go far in the playoffs. That's what the Raptors did against Philly.
Against the Bucks, though, they'll need to play their best. They'll need to figure a way to bottle up Giannis. They'll need to get more consistent 3-point shooting. They'll need to have Gasol and Lowry playing more aggressively on the offensive end. They'll need to have Siakam not shrinking from the biggest moments as he did in Game 7. And alongside all that, they'll need, of course, to have Kawhi looking like the best player on earth. There were several games during this series where the phrase "Jordanesque" was applied to Kawhi, and it didn't even feel like hyperbole.
Do all that and the Raptors absolutely can make the Finals.
No matter what happens over the next couple weeks, Masai Ujiri's gamble should be considered a massive, massive success. Less than one year ago, Ujiri traded franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan and tied the hopes and dreams of this long-suffering Raptors fan base to one year of soon-to-be free agent Kawhi Leonard. Ujiri knew he had plenty of talent on this team already – the rising Pascal Siakam, the aging Kyle Lowry – but not enough to win a title. Their championship window may only have a month left. Who knows where Kawhi will decide to spend the next chapter of his NBA career? If it's, say, Los Angeles, or anywhere other than Toronto, then the Raptors will have to enter an abbreviated sort of rebuilding phase around Siakam. But Ujiri should be commended for going for it. If it doesn't work long-term, he'll be able to rebuild the team in his own image. But for this season, it has already worked out.
Against the Sixers, it worked out partially from luck – those four bounces off the rim, those viruses that infected Embiid's body. They'll need luck against the Bucks, sure, but they'll need more than that. If the Raptors want to pull the upset against the team that had the NBA's best record in the regular season, they'll have to play better, more consistent basketball than they did in this series.
But are they capable of it?
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