Game 2 did not go the way that most Toronto fans would have liked. The Raptors had a 5 point lead at halftime, only to end up losing the game itself by 5 points, 109-104. The Warriors took over in the 4th quarter, and despite the late comeback that the Raptors mounted they took this game in Scotiabank Arena. There were some big positives from the game. One could point to the fact that despite Lowry fouling out, the Raptors made a run late in the 4th to bring themselves to the brink of stealing another Game from the defending champions. One could point to the defense that held Steph Curry to 6-17 shooting, and 3-10 from 3PT range. While it’s hard to draw happiness from a loss, one thing that stood out to me is how the Raptors are handling the immensely bright lights of the Finals.
The Raptors of past would have never dreamed of the franchise getting to this moment, let alone taking a Game off of the most talented roster in the NBA. Despite their offense entirely cratering to the tune of an 18-0 run by the Warriors in the 4th, the Raptors stayed even keeled and fought back. Their stifling defense brought them back into the game, and had they not botched multiple possessions in the 3rd quarter we may well have been talking about Toronto being 2-0 up. Despite that, the Raptors don’t seem phased. In past years there were certain players that gave their teammates irrational confidence to play ball. Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan or Chauncey Billups. There were players that made their team have a mental toughness, and a winner’s mentality.
DeMar DeRozan: "If we had LeBron on our team too, we woulda won" pic.twitter.com/BDPyPKgoBH
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) May 8, 2017
A Collected Leader
Kawhi Leonard isn’t an extremely combative leader like those past players. As Stephen A. Smith aptly puts it, he is an “assassin”. Kawhi Leonard knows who he is and what he can do, and if he has confidence in these guys and their talent, then they should as well. He doesn’t need to confront them or start anything a la Kobe and Pau. Kawhi just needs to do his thing. In the past, stars have shrunk against bigger odds. Bosh and Carter left when things got hard in the franchise. DeRozan and Lowry have shrunk against the odds before. One of the biggest things that changed this year was the grit and the toughness that the players play with. When your leader goes out and does everything, you feel inspired to try even harder. Despite a mediocre shooting night, the Raptors still kept fighting, and that is due to their mentality.
The Raptors can get this, and they have the opportunity to take it all. So many members of the team have experinced playoff disappointment, and they know how much this means to be here. Kawhi Leonard has imbued players with the confidence to step up. The bench all had a positive +/- stat, and Fred VanVleet played out of his mind against smaller opponents like Steph Curry. As a result of his calm and collected demeanor, Kawhi has provided a sense of security and assuaged Raptors’ playoff nerves. He told them to enjoy the moment and just seize the day, and they have come from back down every single series. It is entirely feasible to win this, and the key will be staying frosty. No one expected this to be sweep. No one expects the Raptors to beat out the defending champs without a fight. As Fred VanVleet says, its going to be a “dogfight”.
Kawhi is a cold blooded superstar. He doesn’t need to get hyped after every play or complain to the refs. He has confidence in his team and most of all himself. Kawhi gets even better the later the playoffs go on. If Toronto doesn’t take one at the Oracle, it would truly be surprising. Throughout this playoff run, Kawhi has continually gained the trust of the fanbase. The Raptors have come back up no matter the odds, and it would be surprising, not to see them respond. All the Raptors need to do is continue to play up to their opposition. We need Pascal Siakam to keep dropping 20+, and playing aggressively. But don’t doubt these Raptors. The core of a team starts with their leader, and Kawhi Leonard is a cold blooded assassin. If the Raptors stay even keeled, they’ve always got a chance to take any game.