TORONTO — In the first quarter of the Raptors’ 111-82 Game 2 victory over the Orlando Magic, Kawhi Leonard dribbled to the right wing, isolated against Magic forward Aaron Gordon, stepped backed, pump-faked and pulled back with Gordon draped over him, kicking the ball out to Danny Green before immediately asking for it back. The ball swung back and forth in Leonard’s hands like a pendulum until, from the same spot, he pulled up and nailed a jumper, Gordon’s outstretched arms ricocheting forward too late.
Leonard had him all along. He just didn’t know it the first time.
The same goes for the Raptors, whose loss in the first-round opener Saturday dropped them to 1-9 in Game 1’s over the last six years. That didn’t stir the anxiety of a weathered and — usually justifiably — fretful fanbase as much as the historic bellwether of their playoff demise: a zero-point night from Kyle Lowry, another explosive failure for a player whose successes are mostly cerebral. Different circumstance, different team, a different coach in Nick Nurse, a different superstar in Kawhi Leonard, sure. But like a phantom limb, anxiety can linger even when circumstances change. Fans here are conditioned to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
The insular Raptors were not feeding into it. “I think people got a little crazy about Game 1,” Pascal Siakam said after Game 2. “We all know the type of guy that [Lowry] is.” Lowry bounced back, as he is wont to do in Game 2’s, scoring 22 points on 13 shots, aggressing up the floor and dishing out seven assists.
More importantly, Leonard was every bit the player the Raptors sacrificed so much for during the offseason — not limited or hobbled or load-managed or coasting. “I took him out after a 12-minute stretch at the end of the third, and I told him he’s got a two-minute rest and he’s going back in. He said he was ready now,” Nurse said. “I think he’s ready to play as many minutes as he can handle, and he can handle as many as the game calls for.” Leonard finished with 37 points on 15-of-22 shooting.
The Raptors got Playoff Kawhi, the ace-in-the-hole who thrives — never cowers — under pressure from the jump, even after he picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter, and then a third in the second. Who cares? Not him. Leonard can self-regulate mid-dribble. He looked pissed off, but never fazed, reacting to his second foul by coming off a screen, balanced like no Raptor before him, muscling his way to the middle of the paint, rising up and scoring over Nikola Vucevic’s outstretched arms. On the next trip, Leonard barreled into Jonathan Isaac, and respected by referees like no Raptor before him — especially with his arms flailing in disbelief after a few bad breaks — Leonard extracted a late whistle and nailed two free throws.
It was one of the few calls that went the Raptors’ way. The Magic drew three fouls on one possession. A “Refs, you suck!” chant broke out before the midpoint of the second quarter, possibly a Scotiabank Arena record. By the end of the half, Leonard, Danny Green and Marc Gasol were in foul trouble, and Toronto had only connected on 4-of-15 3-pointers. Yet they led by 11.
It was the Raptors like we have never seen them before, refusing to succumb to the whims of circumstances. For all the comebacks the Dwane Casey-era Raptors were known for, resiliency was a trait they usually shelved by April. “I guess I had a decision to make there, right? I think at that point, we were off to a good start and we were imposing our will on the game,” said Nurse about the decision to keep Leonard in the game despite foul trouble. “And I figured I’d roll the dice so our will could continue to be imposed.”
Leonard was indeed a force of nature, the gleaming certainty that can break any opponent’s hope. Six years ago, you could draw parallels between the Raptors and the Magic: a tough, defensive-minded squad with a spate of almost stars, powered into the postseason by a late-season surprise run. Old for a first-time playoff team, but young enough to be excited at the prospect of whom they could turn into when the lights came on. DeMar DeRozan and Lowry eventually earned All-Star berths — as Vucevic has and Gordon might — but they perpetually fell short when faced with LeBron James, a series shifter whose talent allowed him to play with his food until he decided it was time for the next round.
The Raptors finally have a player like that. On Tuesday, Leonard exorcised the Raptors’ old playoff jitters for good. Now, it’s a matter of getting him to stick around past the end of this playoff run. What’s scarier than a playoff collapse? Getting everything you ever wanted a few months — or weeks — before it could walk out the door. Trying to be better than yourself is perpetually anxious work.
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