No franchise has better dealt with the departure of a NBA Finals MVP than the Toronto Raptors. Wait, you might say, the only time that had happened in league history was Michael Jordan’s two retirements from the Chicago Bulls.
Exactly. And that shows how impressive Toronto’s run without Kawhi Leonard has been this season as the Raptors are one of the hottest teams in the NBA bubble going into their showdown with the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Toronto showed all season they could find a way to win without Leonard. They recorded a 46-18 record before Covid-19 suspended the season. That was the same record through 64 games as in 2018-19, when Leonard’s load management was topic number one en route to Toronto’s run to the title. As it turns out, playing alongside Leonard helped a number of shooting stars develop and this season take the next steps.
Pascal Siakam made the transformation from Most Improved Player to franchise pillar, carrying over his impressive playoff performance from 2019 into this season. Siakam has used his ball-handling skills as a power forward to create mis-matches, also helping out point guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.
VanVleet for his part has done an excellent job going from undrafted rookie to role player and backup to NBA Finals X-factor and now to primary ball handler.
But there have been others who have stepped up. OG Anunoby has hinted at having the ability to take the sidekick role next to Siakam that Siakam himself did with Leonard – not as much offensively but definitely defensively. And Normal Powell has turned himself into a fine three-and-D role-filler, holding opposing shooters to just 37.8 percent.
Defense has been a forte for Toronto, led by Lowry and Marc Gasol. Add to that Serge Ibaka, who has enjoyed a renaissance as a stretch big and was outstanding in the first round of the playoffs against Brooklyn off the bench. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was able to rely on his reservers against the Nets, as at least one player from the bench scored at least 20 points in each of the four games. Powell and Ibaka were the top two scorers in Game 4 with 29 and 27 points, respectively, as four reserves tallied in double figures.
Nurse’s team has struggled all season with injuries but the Raptors have been healthy in Orlando. And they are one of the hottest teams, having won 11 of 12 games in the bubble, including wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets. The only team to beat them since the re-start has been Boston. And the Celtics have won three of the four matchups this season – the Raptors winning in Boston four days after losing at home to the Celtics on Christmas day.
Toronto will now need to find a way to beat Boston four times, all without Kawhi Leonard. But the Raptors have been doing well without him so far.
by FIVE Magazine #171 – Playoff Preview: Boston Celtics – Text: Ole Frerks