Kawhi Leonard, Raptors Beat LeBron James, Reeling Lakers 111-98

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2019

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 14:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball as LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers defends during the first half of an NBA game at Scotiabank Arena on March 14, 2019 in Toronto, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors finished their season sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers with a 111-98 victory on Thursday at Scotiabank Arena.

Los Angeles' abysmal season continued with a sixth loss in seven games, further decimating its slight playoff chances. The Purple and Gold entered play seven games behind the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers in the race for the Western Conference's No. 8 seed.

Kawhi Leonard led the way for the Raptors with 25 points, eight rebounds and four assists, while Norman Powell (20 points and eight rebounds), Marc Gasol (15 points, seven rebounds and four assists) and Pascal Siakam (16 points, six assists, five rebounds, two blocks and two steals) provided effective support.

LeBron James spearheaded Lakers' attack with 29 points, six dimes and four rebounds.

                  

Victory over LeBron Reminder This Year's Raptors Primed for Deeper Run

Thursday's matchup with James stood out in contrast to the Raptors' recent shortcomings.

After all, the King's Cleveland Cavaliers swept them in the second round the last two seasons and won the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals in six games. They weren't just defeats, as James mixed in buzzer-beaters and dominant performances to sap any hope from Toronto three consecutive times.

It's a new era north of the border.

James' victories made it clear the DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry duo wouldn't push the Raptors over the top as championship contenders, especially as the Boston Celtics loaded up and the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers entered competitive periods with their young stars.

Toronto responded by trading for Leonard this past offseason, giving it just the type of standout who thrives in the playoffs.

The two-time Defensive Player of the Year can help keep East stars such as Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons and perhaps even Giannis Antetokounmpo in check. The Raptors didn't have someone who could do that against James' individual brilliance the past three playoffs.

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Ask the San Antonio Spurs what he is capable of, as he won the 2014 NBA Finals MVP largely because of his work on James.

Leonard was also averaging a career-best 27 points per night heading into the Lakers matchup, and the offensive arsenal was on full display Thursday with five three-pointers and a number of attacks off the bounce when he handled the ball with Lowry sidelined.

The Raptors aren't just the Leonard show, though, and it was a testament to their depth that they handled the Lakers without Lowry, Serge Ibaka or Fred VanVleet. They are eighth in the league in bench offensive rating, per NBA.com, and the second unit can come in for five- to eight-minute stretches during the postseason and alter the course of a game with offense.

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Toronto also has leadership with Lowry, Leonard, Gasol, Danny Green and Ibaka all playoff-tested veterans who will not be intimidated by the pressure-packed games to come against Eastern Conference contenders.

It is also balanced and not overly reliant on one end of the floor at seventh in the league in defensive rating and seventh in the league in offensive rating, per NBA.com.

With Leonard's ability to take over in crunch time on both ends, Lowry and VanVleet's ball-handling and outside shooting, Siakam's rim-attacking presence as a dangerous secondary scorer, a talented bench and veteran leadership across the roster, Toronto is better equipped than ever to make an NBA Finals run.

It also doesn't hurt that James is in the Western Conference.

                     

What's Next?

Both teams are at the Detroit Pistons for their next game, with the Lakers playing Friday and the Raptors on Sunday.

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