- With its superstar clearly ailing, Toronto's bench finally rose to the occassion against Milwaukee, evening the Eastern Conference finals 2-2 in the process.
TORONTO — He’s injured. He has to be. For two games Kawhi Leonard has dragged around his right leg like there was a nail hammered into it. The Raptors won’t admit there’s a problem. Nick Nurse says he’s fine. Leonard’s face says different. In the third quarter of Toronto’s 120-102 Game 4 win, Leonard elevated for dunk, colliding with Giannis Antetokounmpo in mid-air, that right leg refusing to bend when it hit the floor.
He winced, looking down at the leg. For the stoic Leonard, it was the equivalent of a scream.
“He’s playing through pain,” Danny Green said to a handful of reporters, long after Leonard left the locker room. “He can’t even celebrate baskets because of how painful it is. You dunk on a guy like Giannis and you are worried about your knee, it shows you that he’s fighting. We’re going to need him to fight through the rest of this series. We need two more.”
The Raptors evened the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday and Leonard has fully repaired his reputation. Questions about his toughness dogged Leonard in his final season in San Antonio, questions in part fueled by comments from his own teammates. Green never believed Leonard was anything but legitimately hurt, and back-to-back brilliant performances the last two games, with Leonard spearheading the Raptors offense on one end and taking on the challenge that is Antetokounmpo on the other, Green said, “reinforces how serious the injury was.”
“It was a year later and it was still something that he had to manage throughout [this] year,” Green said. “For good reason. Now he’s playing a ton of minutes and as you see, some of it still lingers, is still coming back. It’s an injury that you have to be very careful with and it just shows you that he would fight through it if he could, and he is doing it now.”
Leonard won’t cop to any injury, of course. In a Leonard-esque, two-minute post game media gaggle, Leonard said he felt good.
“I can keep going, keep fighting,” Leonard said. “We have a chance to make history. There’s no excuses. You’re playing basketball. And we got a win tonight.”
Indeed, and with Leonard hobbled, the Raptors made sure he had back up. There was Kyle Lowry, the mainstay, the face of the Raptors in recent seasons, seasons that ended with crushing playoff disappointments. What a redemptive series this has been for Lowry. He scored 30 points in Game 1, keeping Toronto in an eventual defeat. In Game 4, Lowry chipped in 25, making all ten of his free throws and handing out six assists.
“We want [Kawhi] healthy, but when we get a chance to go play and have to do these things, we have to try to be more aggressive and assertive even to start games,” Lowry said. “I think we rely on him a lot, and he definitely does a lot for us. But we have a game like this where everyone steps up, it’s a lot of easing the pressure off him doing something offensively for us.”
Everyone includes Marc Gasol. Gasol vanished in the first two games of this series, and beat himself up for it. He wasn’t scoring. He wasn’t defending well, either. After Game 2, Nurse checked in with him. Told Gasol he was a great player. Told him there was no one else he would rather go to war with. Gasol’s response: I’m going to play great the next game.
He did, posting a 16-point, 12-rebound stat line in Toronto’s Game 3 win. He added 17 points in Game 4, handing out seven assists and anchoring the Raptors defense. “His confidence didn’t waver,” Nurse said. “He’s been around a long time. He knows he can play and impact this game and this series in a big fashion.”
So can Fred VanVleet, the cold shooting sharpshooter who busted out with his best game of the playoffs in Game 4. On Monday, VanVleet welcomed his son, Fred Jr., into the world. On Tuesday, VanVleet knocked down all three of his three-pointers, five of his six shots overall and handed out six assists.
“Guys know I’ve been struggling,” VanVleet said. “It’s not rocket science. I don’t run from it, I don’t hide from it. I know I have to play better and I’m accountable and try to take it on the chest. My teammates are there for me and want to see me win … the last 24 hours have been very special.”
VanVleet broke out of his slump, and the Raptors bench with him. Energized by the 20,237 crammed into Scotiabank Arena, the Raptors second unit broke out. Norman Powell (18-points) had his second straight strong game. Serge Ibaka (17-points) was a factor on both ends of the floor. Ibaka, one of Leonard’s closest friends on the team, admitted he didn’t fully grasp what Leonard was dealing with until Game 4.
“You know Kawhi, he plays at his own pace,” Ibaka said. “Sometimes it’s hard to know. But at some point I felt that maybe he is going a little too much. I asked somebody on the bench, and when I heard, I thought, ‘Oh, wow.’ You have to give him credit, man. He’s a tough guy.”
Added VanVleet, “[Kawhi] is out there, he’s battling. We know we need him. That’s for him and the medical staff to worry about. As teammates you just appreciate a guy going to war for you. We all do the same. When guys are hurt, you try to go out there and lay it on the line for your teammates. It’s playoff basketball. Obviously seeing him in a different mode in terms of offense, where you can see he is moving a little bit different, and they are still sending more help. They don’t care that he is hurt. They are not taking the double teams off. We got to keep stepping up and making shots.”
The Raptors took care of business, and now comes the real challenge. Milwaukee doesn’t have to win any games in Toronto to advance; the Raps must win in Milwaukee, where they were last seen getting clubbed by 22. “Let’s see if we can do it in Milwaukee,” Nurse said. “We need to take this challenge of playing in a hostile environment.”
Nurse admitted he was concerned watching Leonard labor through Game 4, but will let Leonard dictate how much he can play. “He’s got tremendous will,” Nurse said. Inside the locker room, Alex McKechnie, the Raptors director of sports science, the man charged with keeping Leonard healthy this season, patted Leonard on the shoulder and whispered in his ear. Two wins away from a trip to the NBA Finals, and Kawhi Leonard will attempt to will Toronto there. A game in Milwaukee awaits, and for the Raptors to win they will have to have his back.