Raptors Have the Firepower to Reach NBA Finals with Hobbled Kawhi Leonard

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 22, 2019

TORONTO, ONTARIO - MAY 21: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors handles the ball during the second half against the Milwaukee Bucks in game four of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals at Scotiabank Arena on May 21, 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 Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

In the context of the NBA's most cited postseason adages, the Toronto Raptors' 120-102 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night doesn't warrant material reactions.

It was Game 4. The series is tied 2-2. The Raptors won both games at home. They did what they were supposed to do. A playoff series does not start until the road team wins, which it has yet to do in these Eastern Conference Finals.

Yada, yada, yada.

And yet, playoff proverbs in mind, this Raptors win does mean more than the typical victory.

Not only were they in must-have territory, facing an insurmountable 3-1 deficit, but they were playing with a visibly hobbled Kawhi Leonard. He tweaked his left leg early in Game 3, and although he went on to log more than 52 minutes in a double-overtime win, the effects stuck with him through Tuesday night:

Dave DuFour @DaveDuFourNBA

Kawhi can’t push off on that leg at all.

"We were concerned," Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said after Game 4, per The Athletic's Blake Murphy. "I think he's fine."

Concerned, but not panicked. Fine, but not great. These remain good lines to toe following Leonard's performance. 

He finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, four steals and two blocks on a tidy 6-of-13 shooting. He wasn't reaching the rim at will, but that's been the story for this entire series. He continued chasing around Giannis Antetokounmpo and defended his tail off in the half-court.

He dunked on the MVP favorite, too:

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Giannis should've gotten out of Kawhi's way 🤭 https://t.co/dK3vwC3rBU

Still, it quickly became clear that Leonard's grit and smarts and will were substitutes for his dominance. He wasn't heavily involved in the offense to start. He didn't make his first shot until roughly halfway through the first quarter, and his first rest of the game came shortly thereafter—far earlier than usual.

Leonard didn't look as explosive on either of his two dunks or when trying to create space off the ball. His one-on-one attacks felt slower—not deliberately more methodical, but involuntarily gradual. 

That he still cobbled together an essential performance deserves to be commended. He is the Raptors' championship hopes personified, and he did not disappoint. He thrived amid strategic conservation; a lower-key offensive role and brief respites from Antetokounmpo on defense allowed him to both stand out and bypass his usual exhaustive volume.

But these calculated concessions don't pan out—or persist for the entire game—if his teammates cannot lift him up. 

They did.

William Lou @william_lou

kawhi carried everyone in game 3, everyone returned the favor in game 4. you love to see it.

That wasn't a given. Toronto's supporting cast has remained a visceral inconstant for much of the playoffs. Pascal Siakam has been Leonard's most reliable running mate, with the occasional detonation from Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka or, much less often, Marc Gasol peppered in. 

Very rarely, though, has Leonard's aid come from numerous sources all at once. The Raptors backups were being outscored by 2.4 points per 100 possessions entering Tuesday night, which ranked 10th among all 16 playoff teams. Gasol, Lowry and Danny Green were shooting a combined 40.3 percent (35.4 percent from downtown).

Lowry, to his credit, has found his groove. His 25 points, six assists and all-out defense in Game 4 were an accurate view of all he's done against the Bucks. He's now averaging 20.3 points and shooting 48.4 percent from distance on nearly eight deep attempts per game for the series:

Jackson Frank @jackfrank_jjf

Kyle Lowry against the Bucks: 20.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 72.7% true shooting Kyrie Irving against the Bucks: 20.4 points, 8.0 assists and 5.3 assists on 44.7% true shooting

But his uptick has changed only so much. Nearly everyone else around Leonard has remained a nightly mystery. Figuring out where his help will come from and whether it will be enough has turned into a postseason rite of passage. 

Support for Leonard came in droves, from all over, on Tuesday. He didn't just have Lowry instead of Siakam. He had Gasol, who dropped 17 points and seven assists on minimal hesitation to go along with five rebounds and two blocks.

He had Norman Powell, who offset his extra-thirsty shot selection (4-of-13 from three) with his energy on the glass and at the defensive end. His offensive persistence—at times excessive—helped, as well. He hit a couple of big treys en route to tallying 18 points and a game-high plus-29.

Leonard also had Serge Ibaka, who was exceptional on the glass (13 rebounds) and shot 7-of-9 inside the arc, including 3-of-3 from mid-range. Leonard even got a vintage game from Fred VanVleet. He poured in 13 points and six assists, helped stifle Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill on defense and was pivotal to the Raptors holding their ground during an opening fourth-quarter stretch in which both Leonard and Lowry were catching breathers:

Josh Lewenberg @JLew1050

See, the thing about Fred VanVleet is he's not just some fringe NBA player you bench when he's missing shots. He was one of the league's most valuable reserves last season (3rd in 6th Man voting) and has earned the benefit of the doubt. Trust paying off tonight.

Some of these good vibes won't last. Stars and role players alike tend to fare better at home, which is where the Bucks are headed. They will punch back.

Credit the Raptors' hard double-teams for forcing the ball out of Antetokounmpo's hands and coaxing him into an uncharacteristically mortal 14-of-33 shooting over the past two games, but he will explode again. Ultra-aggressive Gasol may play Brook Lopez off the court, but Bledsoe, Brogdon and Hill won't combine for a 5-of-20 clip every night.

Toronto's non-stars will likewise get worse. Ibaka, Powell and VanVleet won't combine for nearly 50 points every night. Lowry is a hustle-plays machine, but he and Gasol have ambled in and out of scoring consciousness.

More importantly, Toronto cannot hope to get by with a banged-up Leonard if it cracks the NBA Finals. 

TORONTO, ONTARIO - MAY 21: Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors drives to the basket during the second half against the Milwaukee Bucks in game four of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals at Scotiabank Arena on May 21, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER:
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Raptors have the depth and ancillary star power to squeak past a Bucks team with which they're evenly matched on the margins. But in a prospective showdown with the Golden State Warriors, they would need Leonard to be Leonard. Nothing less or in between would suffice.

That's a matter for another day, and the Raptors would welcome it if they get that far. And they have enough to get that far.

With or without Leonard making a full recovery from his ailing leg, they have enough. 

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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