Ahead of their Game 7 blockbuster against the Boston Celtics, it’s worth taking a quick look back at how the Toronto Raptors have remained so good without Kawhi Leonard.
Before the season began, the Raptors were given long odds to make a deep postseason run. Truth be told, it was hard to blame the pundits for flagging Toronto as one of the less compelling defending champions in recent times, given they had just lost the masterful Leonard to the Clippers.
However, there’s something going on north of the border, something bigger than just Kawhi. After all, the Raptors are still a very good team. It’s remarkable how many games Toronto has won this season by playing scrappy, team-first basketball.
One night it’s Norman Powell who hits big shots down the stretch and puts the clamps on on the defensive side of the ball. The next night it’s Fred VanVleet – who fears no man or moment – springing into action and continuing to improve upon his outstanding Finals performance from last season. Pascal Siakiam had also become a 20+ points per game scorer before going missing in the playoffs.
Powell’s numbers are especially impressive. His scoring average has jumped from 8.6 to 16 – an 86 percent increase even though his minutes have “only” increased 51 percent. He has also maintained last season’s elite 40 percent strike rate from downtown, despite attempting almost twice as many of them. He was outstanding down the stretch against Boston in Game 6, and as VanVleet said, just about saved Toronto’s season in a 2OT thriller.
VanVleet himself is already one of the biggest names in what is a relatively uninspiring unrestricted free agent class this coming off-season, and he deserves every dollar that will get thrown his way. After averaging just 2.9 points per game as an undrafted rookie, his rise from obscurity is one of the best stories in the league with averages of 18 points per game and a championship ring on his finger after just a few years in the league.
Another player to make a considerable jump under the tutelage of Nick Nurse is OG Anunoby. Already an outstanding defender last season, the former Hoosier has been downright terrifying this year, proving himself to be a game-changer both as an individual defender and a team defender in a bigger rotation.
Kyle Lowry, meanwhile, has welcomed the challenge of competition without Kawhi more than anyone, and had one of his best showings ever in Game 6. He was never afraid to take big shots, and he’s only grown ballsier in Leonard’s absence.
If anything, losing Kawhi has galvanised the Raptors. They are a group that play as a well-drilled unit night in, night out. It’s extremely rare that they don’t turn up fully engaged and focused, playing with an ‘us against the world’ mentality that dictates everything they do.
And regardless of what happens in Game 7 on Friday, you can be sure that Toronto will compete like hell. At this point, we’d expect nothing less.