What the Toronto Raptors missed most in this year’s NBA playoffs was Kawhi Leonard, and what Leonard missed most was the Raptors.
In 2019, with 4.2 seconds left on the clock in the NBA playoffs’ semi-finals, Marc Gasol stood on the side lines, scouring the court.
The play was likely drawn up months prior and was sitting idle in head coach Nick Nurse’s back pocket. With such little time on the clock, it was clear only one player would get the chance to hold the fate of the Raptors season in their hands. Not everyone could be the hero, but the ‘team first’ mentality of the Raptors allowed the players to accept their role and play it well.
Gasol inbound the ball to Leonard, it was always going to be Leonard, and the rest will live on in Toronto sports history forever.
Fast forward one tumultuous year…
The Toronto Raptors are in the midst of defending their championship title. Game 7—playoffs semi-final—do or die. They’d been here before, but this time Leonard was absent. With a minute left to go and the Raptors trailing by two, the question loomed… who was going to step up in Kawhi’s absence?
There were a few options.
Kyle Lowry showed flashes of his superstar ability which he demonstrated throughout the series: look no further than game 6’s fadeaway jumper.
Pascal Siakam led Toronto in scoring this season but failed to produce to his usual calibre since entering the COVID-19 bubble.
Bench player Norman Powell “saved our season,” according to Fred Vanfleet in a postgame interview after their win in game 6.
So who was the ball going to?
The confusion lead to a lackluster final minute where no player in particular appeared to have the confidence to carry the team down the final stretch. The Raptors lost 92-87 and were subsequently eliminated from the playoffs.
No one player deserves the blame for the Raptors loss, but it was Siakam who was poised to be the guy to replace Leonard this season. “I have to be better,” Siakam said. “It was definitely a learning moment for me, just learning from this experience and just learning that you’ve got to be ready and that I wasn’t able to really help my teammates, so, yeah, I take a lot of the blame, man. I take a lot of the blame.”
It was the absence of a true superstar that cost the Raptors a chance at back-to-back NBA titles.
Conversely, for Leonard, who went home to join the L.A. Clippers, it was an absence of any sort of team chemistry and play making that cost him a chance to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy this year.
“We just couldn’t make no shots,” Leonard said. “That’s when it comes to the team chemistry, knowing what we should run to get the ball in spots or just if someone’s getting doubled or they’re packing the paint, try to make other guys make shots, and we gotta know what exact spots we need to be.”
Leonard was always capable of making the shot, but without a disciplined team around him he never got the chance.
It begs the question, had Leonard decided to return to the Toronto Raptors, what might have been?
Perhaps those missing pieces would have found each other once again.