Kawhi Leonard's 34 Points Lead Raptors to Easy Win vs. Magic; Up 3-1 in Series

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2019

Toronto Raptors' Kawhi Leonard (2) drives to the basket against Orlando Magic's Aaron Gordon, left, during the first half in Game 4 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series, Sunday, April 21, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux/Associated Press

The Toronto Raptors are one win away from ending the Orlando Magic's season following Sunday's 107-85 victory in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series at the Amway Center.

The second-seeded Raptors now lead 3-1 and have the opportunity to close out the series back at home in the next contest.

Kawhi Leonard was brilliant throughout and finished with 34 points, six rebounds, two steals and two blocks, while Pascal Siakam added 16 points and six boards. Kyle Lowry (nine points, nine assists, four steals) and Serge Ibaka (13 points, eight rebounds) provided support.

Aaron Gordon provided a silver lining in defeat for the Magic and tallied 25 points, seven rebounds and five assists.


Kawhi-Siakam Combo Have Raptors Ceiling Higher Than Ever

The Raptors going extinct before the Eastern Conference Finals has become a recent tradition. They have won more than 50 games in four straight seasons and made the playoffs for six straight years but only have one trip to the third round to show for their efforts.

The playoffs have simply been a different story than the regular season. During that stretch, Toronto was swept three times, lost in the first round twice and made falling victim to LeBron James an annual pastime.

The Lowry-DeMar DeRozan combination was good enough for regular-season success, but it had a clear limit on its overall ceiling. DeRozan's inconsistency from beyond the arc allowed opponents to make game-to-game adjustments and clog the lane, while Lowry averaged more than 20 points in just one postseason. He also shot 39.7 percent from the field the one time his Raptors made the Eastern Conference Finals.

Toronto's ceiling is far higher with Lowry as a third option who can facilitate for the Leonard-Siakam combination rather than a featured one who takes pressure-packed shots.

Leonard's resume—two-time Defensive Player of the Year, NBA Finals MVP, two-time All-NBA selection and four-time All-Defensive selection—is well known at this point. He's arguably the best two-way threat in the league. He can take over on the offensive end and guard the opponent's best player on the defensive side, making him the perfect go-to option in the playoffs.

Orlando had no answers for him in Sunday’s contest.

He unleashed a barrage of mid-range jumpers and relentless attacks on the basket while extending his arsenal to the three-point line when defenders sagged off him. Leonard is the type of transcendent superstar who has been missing in past playoff runs for the Raptors, and he silenced the crowd almost every time the Magic made a run.

Just Leonard surrounded by playoff-tested veterans such as Ibaka, Lowry, Marc Gasol and Danny Green would be enough to challenge the likes of the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers on the way to the NBA Finals. However, the addition of Siakam as a Kawhi-lite matchup problem makes it even easier to envision the Raptors battling for a championship.

Siakam did his best Leonard impression in Game 3 when he poured in 30 points with 11 rebounds. Then he picked his spots in Sunday's contest with a three to end the first half and a handful of crisp cuts whenever the defense's attention was focused on one of his notable teammates.

His defensive ability is also critical this time of year after he held opponents to 6.4 percent worse shooting from the field (3.9 percent worse from three-point range) than their normal averages during the regular season, per NBA.com. Siakam can guard some of the assignments Leonard would typically draw and preserve the latter's energy for crunch time and later rounds against more difficult matchups.

A fresher Leonard is a nightmare for the rest of the Eastern Conference, and Siakam is talented enough to take over individual games during a series, as he has already proved against the Magic.

Toronto is no longer asking DeRozan and Lowry to do everything and overcome their limitations during the most important part of the year. The point guard can be more of a facilitator and secondary option instead of a go-to offensive force thanks to Siakam's emergence, and Leonard can be an All-NBA performer who gives the Raptors their best player and highest ceiling in franchise history.


Aaron Gordon’s Playoff Play Provides Hope For Magic Fans

This is the Magic's first playoff appearance since the 2011-12 season, which was a shocking development after they won a mere 25 games in 2017-18.

This was nothing close to a playoff team a year ago. Frankly, it wasn't supposed to be here this season, so simply making it this far is an important step for the franchise. Another critical step would be one of its important players making strides—exactly what has happened with Gordon in this series.

Gordon is holding his own against a Raptors squad with enough talent to reach the NBA Finals, scoring 20 points in Game 2 and doing more than just putting the ball in the basket during other contests (10 rebounds and three steals in Game 1, and seven rebounds and seven assists in Game 3).

His play has been exactly what the Magic envisioned when they selected him out of Arizona with the No. 4 overall pick of the 2014 draft, and that's a welcome development after inconsistency and some injuries defined his early career. He has taken significant strides the last two seasons (17.6 points and 7.9 boards per night in 2017-18, and 16.0 points and 7.4 rebounds per night in 2018-19) and played his best game of the series Sunday.

Gordon kept Orlando within striking distance a number of times before Leonard and Co. were simply too much to overcome.

The Arizona product is not an unrestricted free agent until 2022 and will be a central building block beyond this one series loss. The Magic aren't talented enough to beat the Raptors four times, but Gordon’s development provides a reason for hope as they look to become a regular contender this time of year.


What's Next?

The series returns to Toronto for Tuesday's Game 5.


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