Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors Have Gone from Over The Moon to Overwhelmed

MILWAUKEE, WI - MAY 17: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors looks on against the Milwaukee Bucks during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals on May 17, 2019 at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

It’s been less than a week since Kawhi Leonard hit the biggest shot in Toronto Raptors history, a fallaway from the corner that bounced on the rim four times before falling through and becoming the first Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history.

Two games later, the Raptors are down 0-2 to the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. For stretches of the 125-103 Game 2 loss on Friday at the Fiserv Forum, they looked helpless, particularly against MVP finalist Giannis Antetokounmpo.

With just under six minutes to play, Antetokounmpo powered through three Raptors for an and-1. Milwaukee faithful chanted “MVP!” as he nailed the free throw, extended the lead to 18 and shut the door on a mini-run by the Raptors. He finished the game with 30 points, 17 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal.

Despite several small surges from Toronto during the second half, Game 2 provided precious little hope for Raptors fans just five days removed from witnessing Kawhi’s season-saving shot. Leonard continued his ludicrous run through the 2019 postseason, scoring 31 points on 10-of-18 shooting, but the rest of the team was 27-of-69 (39.1 percent). Toronto starters not named Kawhi went 11-of-37 (29.7 percent).

To beat a team as good as the Bucks—who just had the 29th-best regular season in NBA history, according to simple rating system—the North will need significantly better production.

In 2017-18, Toronto had eight players with at least 500 minutes and an above-average box plus-minus. Only the Golden State Warriors had more. It was depth that made the Raptors so good last season. And four of those players were dealt elsewhere since the end of the 2018 playoffs.

Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and, of course, DeMar DeRozan are all gone. Marc Gasol and Leonard are in their place. Obviously, that’s a trade-off just about any front office in the league would make. But now, in the Eastern Conference Finals, Toronto looks overwhelmed against a deeper team.

Leonard has been doing his part. Gasol has to be better.

“I played really bad,” Gasol told reporters after the game. “And that set the tone.”

After going 1-of-9 from the field in Game 2, Gasol (acquired in the exchange that sent Valanciunas and Wright to Memphis) is now 3-of-20 in this series. He’s a minus-13, and it’s about more than missing shots. In Game 1, he at least had 12 boards and five assists. His five rebounds and one dime Friday did little to move the needle.

His frontcourt partner hasn’t been much better. After a breakout regular season, Pascal Siakam is being outplayed by Bucks backup forward Ersan Ilyasova. Yes, Ersan Ilyasova.

Since November, I’ve been worried Ersan would be unplayable against Toronto if these teams met in the playoffs,” Frank Madden of SB Nation’s Brew Hoop tweeted. “Two games in, Ersan has not just been playable—he’s somehow also outplayed Siakam. Big, big kudos to Ersan.”

Like Gasol, Siakam has been terrible from the field. He’s now 10-of-29 for the series. This is after averaging 20.8 points per contest in the postseason prior to this matchup. And to make matters worse, foul trouble limited him to 26 minutes in Game 2.

“It didn’t look like it tonight,” Siakam said of being nominated for Most Improved Player prior to the game, per TSN’s Josh Lewenberg. “I’ve gotta be more aggressive. I’ve gotta do a better job. I’ve gotta be better.”

It may sound reductive to simply say guys need to make more shots for Toronto, but that’s clearly been an issue. Against the length and athleticism of Milwaukee, the Raptors have to take advantage of the decent looks they get.

The bigger picture here is that Toronto just may not have the firepower it needs to beat the Bucks. The Raptors played about as well as they could for the first three quarters of Game 1 and still managed to lose.

Milwaukee looks like a juggernaut. And not just in this series. Over the course of the postseason, the Bucks are destroying Vegas’ lines, per John Ewing of the Action Network:

They have perhaps the game’s best player in Giannis, who’s surrounded by seven or eight guys who’ve been solid throughout the playoffs.

Toronto, meanwhile, has looked like a one-man show for stretches. And while it’s a good one, Leonard needs more help to upend Milwaukee.

With Kawhi’s team needing to win four out of the next five to avoid elimination, that thought may be creeping into Leonard’s head too. Bucks fans certainly tried to plant it there Friday:

The Los Angeles Clippers have just under $50 million in salary guaranteed for next season. The cap is projected to be $109 million. That’s enough room for L.A.’s own Kawhi to sign there and add plenty of help around him. If the Clips can find a taker for the $22.6 million Danilo Gallinari is owed in 2019-20, they can get really aggressive.

A team with Kawhi, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, and oh, say Jimmy Butler (?) would be pretty scary. And L.A. is the kind of market Leonard was reportedly after when things broke down between him and the San Antonio Spurs.

And the Clippers aren’t the only big-city franchise poised to go after marquee names this summer. The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets will both have significant cap space. And though rumors floated around this season about young players (and Kawhi himself) not wanting to join LeBron James, the Lakers still scream folklore.

Leonard is from Los Angeles. And he grew up there in the ’90s and early 2000s. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille won their first of three consecutive titles for the historic franchise just before Leonard’s ninth birthday. If the heartstrings have any say in the matter, the Lakers may still be in play.

With all those options potentially in front of him, will Leonard want to re-up with the North right after being dismantled by Milwaukee?

He’s provided plenty of excitement in one season with this organization. On top of the buzzer-beater, he posted the sixth-best single-season box plus-minus in Raptors history. If he maintains his current level of play, he will comfortably put up the best playoff box plus-minus the team has ever had.

But time may already be running out on this player-team relationship. Even with someone as good as Kawhi, the Raptors look outmatched.

And if its best player leaves, Toronto may have to go back to the drawing board. Sure, Siakam will still be there. And he should be better. But Serge Ibaka (29), Gasol (34)—assuming he opts into the final year of his deal—and Kyle Lowry (33) will all be a year older. Fred VanVleet doesn’t look quite as promising as he did a year ago. The same might go for OG Anunoby. And even without Leonard on the books, the Raptors won’t have much, if any, flexibility with the salary cap.

That’s the risk general manager Masai Ujiri took when he dealt DeRozan, the face of the franchise, and Poeltl, a key cog in an intriguing young core, in the trade for Leonard.

The move made sense because of the potential reward, but Giannis and the Bucks may be holding it at a (long) arm’s-length away.   

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