The Toronto Raptors look a little bit different during the playoffs this year than they looked last year and you can credit Kawhi Leonard. His playoffs have been sensational. He’s averaging 31 points on 57% shooting with a blistering 46% from three. Of the 7 years Leonard has been in the playoffs, six of those years he has shot over 40% from three, including the year he won Finals MVP for the San Antonio Spurs. The problem for the Raptors is that Kawhi’s excellence hasn’t trickled down to much. He’s playing with not prime time playoff performers who come through in the regular season but when the games change come April, and the pressure is on, they don’t rise up.
The myth of a great player is that just by being in his presence, you are great too. Sort of like Jesus. In the regular season, great players can seemingly lift up entire buildings by the strength of their talent. But in the playoffs, when teams are good in all areas, when they play hard and defend, and don’t turn the ball over, when the pressure is welcomed and used as motivation to take the individual game even higher, the pretenders fall off a cliff.
Getting rid of DeMar DeRozan didn’t suddenly make the Raptors into some playoff monster. In hindsight, the Raptors needed more to help Kawhi lead them to the top.
Here’s what is happening against a 76ers team that has dominant players. Kawhi and Pascal Siakam are holding up the boat. The rest are drowning. Kyle Lowry is averaging 11 points and shooting 25% from three. Danny Green is averaging 8 points and shooting 37%. Marc Gasol is averaging 7 points and 5 rebounds. Fred VanVleet is doing what he did last year in the playoffs. Not disappearing. Disappeared. 5 points. 31% and 21% from three. I won’t even go into Serge Ibaka’s dead weight.
Kawhi would have to average 45 points a game to overcome the mediocrity surrounding him, (with the exception of Siakam). It’s not that the Raptors supporting cast are bad players. They are just average and average is not going to get you to a conference final.
I hate that Kyle Lowry has a history of not showing up when it matters the most. I like his grit. But the playoffs reveal who is all in during adversity when things are hard because you are being forced to scrap plan A and go to plan B and maybe plan C. How is your mental game? Is it tight?
Lowry has done wonderful things in the regular season and has had great years. He plays with a chip on his shoulder so you’d expect he would thrive in April and May. But he doesn’t. That born in Philly edge he trots on the court most nights during the regular season gets buried. Lowry is just an average dude who can’t find any consistency. He’s been in the playoffs seven times and shot 50% only once. Last year in the playoffs, he averaged 17 points a game. Two years before that, 19 points a game. Two years before that, 21 points a game. Get the math? He has this every two year I’m going to eat in the postseason thing. This is the year he is supposed to suck. Cue up the misery.
We have seen this movie so many times, it is starting to get boring.
NBA front offices have two jobs. Draft and develop elite talent, or sign elite talent. And build a supporting cast. Both are hard, and luck is involved, and things have to just go your way. But we can say pretty accurately that the Raptors have achieved the first but are still a work in progress on the second. And to make matters worse, their elite talent may just be a rental. Kawhi losing before the conference finals has no reason whatsoever to stick around.
Gambling is good, if you win. But when you lose, there are only crumbs. You can’t even say wait until next year. Next year, will be worse.