TORONTO — They gave everything. They have been giving everything. Kawhi Leonard gave more than anyone when his teammates needed him most.
But he is not alone on a Toronto Raptors team that is finding its identity on the fly, digging deep for teammates that were strangers even a few months ago as they try to keep a grip on the Eastern Conference Finals while down to the Milwaukee Bucks, 2-1.
Go down the list:
Kyle Lowry’s sprained, heavily-wrapped left thumb would have kept the Raptors high-revving engine out for weeks, based on the timeline of the team’s cascade of other thumb injuries this season. He never missed a minute.
Pascal Siakam played through a badly bruised calf and tightened hamstring that stemmed from his ill-advised kick of Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid in the second round. If anything, he played more — he’s averaging 37 minutes a game in the post-season. A year ago he was playing 18.
Marc Gasol is 34 years old and was cruising along playing 25 minutes a night when he arrived in Toronto in early February. He’s now absorbing minutes through his pores, banging with Embiid and now wrestling with Brook Lopez while finding the legs to slide over and help on arguably the most athletic player in the world in the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo. He played his best game as a Raptor in 45 minutes during Toronto’s double-overtime win in Game 3.
Danny Green? He turns 32 next month, battled with injuries all last year, had off-season surgery and now played 95 of a possible 97 games as a Raptor. Tired legs make for wayward jump shots, and the same person who shot a career-best 45.5 per cent from deep on 5.5 attempts a game during the regular season is shooting 26 per cent from deep over his past five games.
And then there’s Leonard. His entire existence as a Raptor has been about managing his health and playing time with silk gloves as he returns from playing just nine games a season ago. The strategy worked, as Leonard burst into the post-season looking every inch the perennial MVP candidate he was before his frustrating 2017-18 season that precipitated his divorce from San Antonio.
But with the Raptors in playoff survival mode for nearly three weeks, Leonard’s been pushed ever closer to not only his limit, but the limit for any athlete.
The load is no longer being managed.
Not only did he play a career-high 52 minutes on Sunday night, but he played the entire fourth quarter and all of both overtimes — 22 consecutive minutes of the highest-intensity basketball imaginable, without a break. And he played the last three minutes of the game while seeming to favour his right thigh — the same area that caused him to miss so much time in San Antonio — after racing full speed, full court and splitting two Milwaukee defenders for a solo fast-break dunk.
The only protocol he’s following now is the one that gives the Raptors a chance to win. Leonard may or may not be here for a long time, but he’s here for the right reasons — his actions speaking louder than anything the man of few words could possibly say.
Needless to say, wasn’t feeling his best Monday as the Raptors gathered for a film session at the OVO Athletic Centre.
“Yeah, I think the consensus today is he’s tired,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who is popping throat lozenges on the regular as he tries to keep his voice after spending his nights screaming to be heard in arenas with decibel levels approaching jet engines. “[But] he’s got two days and will be ready to go. Those are kind of the words coming out of his mouth: Little tired, but he’ll get his rest, got two days, and he’ll be ready.”
He told team officials and medical staff earlier on Monday as they followed up that he was playing in Game 4. His only message?
He was going to play on Tuesday night.
Would he be playing if it was not a virtual must-win in the Eastern Conference Finals?
Almost certainly not. The last time Leonard played through some obvious discomfort with his leg in a game that went into double overtime was when he played 45 minutes in a Jan. 13 win over the Washington Wizards, played two days later on the road against Boston and then sat for the next four games.
The Raptors don’t have that luxury now and Leonard — pending free agency and all — doesn’t want any part of it.
“I’m good,” was his assessment after getting treatment and a dip in the cold tub after the game Sunday night, which only added to his growing playoff lore in a post-season in which he’s scored 30 or more points 10 times in 15 games and can be credited with crunch-time plays that directly contributed to at least four wins so far in the Raptors’ playoff run.
Leonard’s willingness to commit himself to the cause — and perhaps even put himself at some risk — has got to be galvanizing for his teammates, but then again it goes both ways. Everywhere Leonard looks in the Raptors circle-shaped locker room, there’s someone dealing with something.
Lowry’s kept the details of his thumb injury close to the vest — other than it was dislocated in Game 7 against the 76ers — but it’s obvious he wouldn’t be playing in any other circumstances.
Does he think about it?
“When it hurts every time I do something, you notice it,” said Lowry, who played just 32 minutes after picking up his sixth foul midway through the fourth quarter in Game 3. “You get hit, stuff like that. But, whatever, you gotta be mind over matter … obviously it’s not helping because I’m fouling out.
“I got to figure out how to use the other hand and be effective. You’ve got to be a little bit more cautious, it definitely is something you think about but it really doesn’t matter. Honestly.”
Siakam looks and moves like his calf and hamstring problems are behind him, but he’s still spending a good chunk of his pre-game routine doing rehabilitation-type exercises. How bad his injuries were or are isn’t really known, in part because he’s never discussed them.
“I don’t pay attention to it. It’s good. I’m good,” he says. “Every time I’m out there on the floor, I’m 100 per cent ready to go. That’s my mindset. I’m not thinking about anything. Obviously, if I wasn’t able to play, I wouldn’t be out there.”
But Siakam was barely behind Leonard in terms of playing time in Game 3 as he put up 25 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals in a career-high 51 minutes. Just dealing with that will be enough.
“Yeah, tired,” he said when asked how he felt Monday. “I’ve played a lot of minutes before, but I just think it’s a different intensity. … [But now] I think it’s just staying hydrated, resting, staying off my feet as much as I can. The body does its work. We’re athletes. We prepare ourselves to sometimes be in these type of conditions and to be tired.
“I know it’s different, but there’s not really much you can do to prepare yourself for that type of intensity. We’ll be ready.”
The Raptors dug deeper than they ever have as team on Sunday night. They left everything out there, no one more than Leonard, the single player who’s given life to the most ambitious of playoff dreams.
He showed in Game 3 that the spirit is willing and he’s willing to put his flesh on the line too.
The only question as he and his teammates head into Game 4 and beyond is what they have left to give.