NBA Fact or Fiction: Playoffs will determine Kawhi’s future with Raptors

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) gestures after sinking a three-pointer against the Portland Trail Blazers. (Frank Gunn/CP)

With the NBA playoffs firmly underway, let’s take a look at some of the chatter around the league as we determine what’s real and what’s not as the first week of the post-season winds down:

When it comes to determining Kawhi Leonard‘s future in Toronto, “It’s not all about what happens at the end of the season.”

FICTION. That quote comes from Raptors general manager Bobby Webster in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times for a piece speculating about Leonard’s upcoming free-agency decision, and whether or not the all-star forward will return to Toronto next season.

Webster’s argument is sound, and clearly one he and the Raptors front office hope is the case. All of the work the organization put in this season maintaining Leonard’s health, selling him on the franchise being capable of earning perennial title-contender status and providing a framework to help maximize his abilities are all major factors in Toronto’s odds of re-signing Leonard this summer.

What’s more likely?

How far the Raptors go in these playoffs, with Leonard surrounded by the most experienced and talented roster the team has assembled, will be what determines Leonard’s future above all. Like, way above.

While Leonard surely has several considerations that will go into his decision, there’s no question that the ability to contend for a championship is first and foremost. It’s a part of why there was quite the panic following Toronto’s game one loss. Another disappointing post-season run would almost surely send Leonard packing for greener pastures. It’s also a part of why Kyle Lowry’s Game 1 performance was worrisome. As Jalen Rose put it on ESPN, “When Kyle Lowry plays like crap, and he’s under contract for three years [Editor’s note: it’s two years], you’re leaving. This is a point guard-driven league, and that’s your point guard.”

It’s also why things felt so good in Raptorland following the team’s Game 2 performance, one that not only saw Lowry bounce back and prove why he’s a high-impact player, but also because Leonard showed us exactly why his free-agency decision will determine whether or not Toronto remains a contender or goes back to the drawing board next season (hint: it’s because he’s very, very, very good at basketball).

Look, nine months after he was acquired from the San Antonio Spurs, we still have no idea where Leonard’s head is at when it comes to next season. For now, it’s almost certainly focused on this current playoff run, one in which he and the Raptors, if they consistently play up to their abilities, could have a real shot at their first Finals appearance. And it really feels like whether or not they reach that goal — or at least show a significant amount of fight in falling short (think: a closely-contested seven-game Conference Finals series) — remains the single greatest factor in persuading Leonard to return. Anything else feels like wishful thinking.

Damian Lillard is the NBA’s most underappreciated star

FACT. Lillard is a complete superstar who too often isn’t regarded as one. NBA players will agree with that statement, having recently voted him the league’s most underrated player.

The list of point guards — or anybody for that matter — playing better basketball than Lillard right now is extremely short. And, frankly, it’s been that way for years. The Trailblazers star has averaged over 26 points and three three-pointers per game over the last four seasons, yet he remains something of an afterthought when debating and designating the NBA’s hierarchy.

Early in these playoffs, he’s reminded us all why we can’t forget his name when having those conversations, averaging 29.5 points through two games and shooting over 47 per cent from deep on 9.5 attempts per game. In the process, Portland is up two games to none against the Oklahoma City Thunder and are in the driver’s seat in their opening-round series.

From the tip-off in Game 2, Lillard picked up where he left off in the series opener, making it clear that he wasn’t messing around and hit a demoralizing dagger from way deep — his pseudo-signature shot — that set the tone for how he would dismantle the Thunder.

Rockets and Bucks are on a collision course in the NBA Finals

FACT. The Houston Rockets entered the post-season with plenty of question marks left mostly from the baggage the team and its stars, James Harden and Chris Paul, carried over from prior years of playoff failure.

Disclaimer: It’s only been two games.

That said, the Rockets have looked stellar so far here in the first round, beating a potent Utah Jazz team two out of two tries with an average margin of victory of 26 points. There’s a reason people are saying the Rockets look like they can beat anyone, and that of any team they have the strongest shot of dethroning the Golden State Warriors this year.

Part of that is because the Warriors looked vulnerable in their last game — or at least as vulnerable as a team that shot out to a 31-point lead — can be. Their disappointing loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, fuelled by a phenomenal Lou Williams performance (more on him in a moment), was likely an aberration, but it did once again bring to light the Warriors’ deficiencies this season versus years past.

The biggest difference with this edition of the Warriors is their obvious lack of depth, an issue that should come to light more and more as the playoffs progress. Sure, it’s less of a factor when you have Steph Curry and Kevin Durant wearing the same jersey, but rotations and the ability to match up with particular opponents matter in the post-season. Throw in Draymond Green’s declining game, an increasing chance that Durant is as good as gone — no matter what — this summer, and, of course, the latest DeMarcus Cousins season-ending injury, and Golden State looks as beatable as they have in years. And yes, for the record, I still wouldn’t bet against them.

That said the Rockets are rolling, and should each team advance as expected it will mean Houston and Golden State will meet in the second round, which doesn’t leave time for the Warriors to regain their edge and that they’ll be running into the hottest team of the playoffs. Needless to say, if Houston can oust Golden State, no other team in the West should pose much of a problem en route to the Finals.

As for the Milwaukee Bucks, they too have been cruising through the first round against the Blake Griffin-less Detroit Pistons, and are fresh off their second consecutive blowout victory. Milwaukee’s path to the Finals would undoubtedly be easier than Houston’s for the simple fact that a) Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the best player in every series — yes, playoff Kawhi included — and b) no team like the Warriors exists in the East.

The Raptors would offer the Bucks their biggest test by far, but you’d still need to see Toronto string together more games like Tuesday’s dominant win before you can say that performances like Game 1’s loss are nothing more than a fluke.

Lou Williams is a superhero

FACT. That’s what at least one publication is saying, and you know what, we’re not arguing.

Williams has made a career out of shot-making, establishing himself as one of the NBA’s premier gunners. He’s also an extremely effective ball-handler and distributor in pick-and-roll scenarios, and used that combination of skills to tear apart the Warriors’ defence to lead the Clippers in their 31-point comeback against the Warriors.

L.A. — one of the league’s most pleasant surprises this season and a scrappy, deep team that plays with an edge — is a long-shot to follow up on their success and win the series. But don’t let that stop you from marvelling at LouWill at his best.

Williams, who had 36 points and 12 assists on the night, also celebrated the monumental comeback in style.

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