Toronto – For the optimists in the crowd, it was a near-perfect Sunday afternoon.
The Toronto Raptors took care of business against the visiting Los Angeles Clippers and allowed the football fans on their roster and in the building and watching at home to glide into their evening enjoying the fruits of their labour before an upcoming three-game road trip and the looming NBA trade deadline this coming Thursday.
Toronto looked a little sluggish early given the Super Bowl mandated 3 p.m. tip but got rolling before halftime and didn’t miss a beat in the second half as they cruised to a 121-103 win.
They needed that.
But it was a “good” day for pessimists, too. In fact, if you’re the type to worry; to make mountains out of molehills, Sunday might go down as base camp at Mount It All Went Wrong, with Steve Ballmer – the billionaire former Microsoft executive whose latest project is lifting the Los Angeles Clippers out of irrelevancy – as tour guide.
First things first: Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry was ruled out before the game due to a recurrence of back problems that cost him six games after the Christmas break, has already required injections for pain and anti-inflammation and may be a factor in Lowry’s extended shooting struggles.
The Raptors clearly have huge potential in the Eastern Conference – even with a steady two-month drip of injuries and lineup shuffling. With the win over the Clippers, the Raptors improved their record to 38-16 ¬– second best in the East – and to a respectable 18-12 since Jonas Valanciunas (thumb) went down.
But there is no trade deadline deal or lineup shuffle that would be more important than Lowry returning to the high-volume, 40-per-cent three-point shooter that makes him such an effective weapon to initiate the Raptors offence.
Even when he’s played, Lowry has struggled offensively – he’s shooting just 30.6 per cent from deep over his past 11 games since his return – and the idea that Lowry’s back can flare up at any time or prevent him from finding his form when healthy are difficult facts to put a positive spin on, or really do anything about.
Side-by-side with the Lowry worry was the presence of Ballmer courtside in what was believed to be his first visit to Scotiabank Arena. Now, it’s not all that odd for an owner to accompany his team on a road trip but it’s hardly a regular thing — particularly when Toronto is just recovering from the Polar Vortex, which seemed to miss L.A. again this winter.
One source suggested that Ballmer – who wants to build a new arena and practice facility so they no longer have to be tenants and second-class citizens to the Lakers at Staples Center – was touring the Raptors facilities on a fact-finding mission.
But given the regular presence the Clippers staff has had at Raptors home games this season, that Ballmer could get some face time – even at a distance — with Leonard was very likely on the agenda as well.
Some good news for those worried about Leonard’s plans beyond this season?
The generally inscrutable Raptor claims to have not noticed Ballmer making the special effort. “Yeah, I know who he is. I didn’t see him tonight,” said Leonard after the game. “I don’t really pay attention to who’s at the game or anything like that unless I’m sitting on the bench or there’s a dead ball or something like that and they make an announcement.
“That’s pretty much the times when I know someone’s here, but other than that I’m not searching for anyone.”
Does he care about such obvious efforts to gain his attention?
“No. I’m not thinking about it right now,” he said. “I’m just focused on the season. I didn’t know he was at the game until you guys told me … I’m focused and when that time comes we’ll have to talk and sit down with everyone.”
Leonard put on a show for whoever was watching with his trademark ruthless efficiency as he scored 18 points on 12 shots in an easy 26 minutes of work, which was bolstered by 18 points and 12 rebounds from Serge Ibaka, who recorded his sixth straight double-double.
It’s impossible to know what catches Leonard’s eye – he famously didn’t know who Clippers general manager Lawrence Frank was when they crossed paths earlier this year – but if he’s the type who cares that a billionaire franchise owner would fly from L.A. to Toronto on Super Bowl Sunday to sit courtside and watch him play, he can check that one of his list.
Sharing the marquee was Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, the promising rookie point guard from Hamilton by way of the University of Kentucky to the Clippers starting lineup. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers has seen this movie before – young kid makes his first start in his hometown and gets swept away in the excitement.
Heck, the 13-year NBA veteran lived it as a rookie with the Atlanta Hawks in 1984 and his head coach Mike Fratello told him he’d been so busy tending to his off-court obligations that he forgot to play. That was not an issue for Gilgeous-Alexander.
“I was really happy for Shai because usually you really struggle when you come home your first night,” said Rivers. “He came in and played great. He was the bright spot.”
Gilgeous-Alexander has been starting since the 10th game of the season for the Clippers. And while his year hasn’t been without hiccups — such as shooting 13.8 percent from three during the month of January – he looks like he’ll have a prominent role in the NBA for years. He showed why early as he got to the rim at will early on and had six points before the game was four minutes old, including a score on his first career touch at Scotiabank Arena, where he became a fan of the Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon-era Raptors.
“It was fun playing basketball,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “Playing the Raptors is always fun, the style they play, they play up and down. Obviously a tough night, a lot of our shots didn’t drop, but we’ll be alright.”
Gilgeous-Alexander can take satisfaction that he had one of the best home debuts of any Canadian NBA rookie as he chipped in 19 points on 15 shots while grabbing five rebounds and adding three assists.
Without Lowry running the Raptors offence, it looked like it was going to get sucked into the mud, even though the Clippers were running on fumes having played a 5 p.m. start in Detroit on Saturday. Toronto failed to score for the last four minutes of the opening quarter and allowed Los Angeles to come back from being down by 12 and enter the second quarter tied after an ugly opening 12 minutes where the two teams combined to shoot 16-of-45 from the floor with the Raptors shooting 2-of-10 from deep.
But things shifted in the second as the Raptors put up 42 points on 15-of-22 shooting, including 5-of-7 from three. Doing the damage was Leonard who seemed to decide that he didn’t want to spoil his Super Bowl or maybe he wanted to remind the Clippers why it was worth getting all excited about the possibility of the rugged two-way forward coming to their town. The Raptors led 65-51 at half, kept their edge in the second half and won comfortably.
After arguably his worst game as a Raptors – 16 points on 7-of-20 shooting versus Milwaukee on Thursday – Leonard put into gear in the second quarter, scoring 10 points on six shots with a pair of triples. He didn’t need to be superman but he was solid. With Lowry out some rotation minutes opened up and C.J. Miles showed he’s interested in being a part of things as the trade deadline nears with a pair of quick triples, as did Delon Wright who scored eight of his 14 points for the afternoon in that frame.
That’s the good news. The Raptors got the win. They’ll live to fight another day. It was a good day for the optimists.
But whether Lowry and his wonky back will be with them looks like it could continue to be an open question as the rest of the season unfolds, just like how long Leonard will be one of them will be a question into the future.
Ballmer didn’t get the answer he’ll be looking for on Super Bowl Sunday, but his presence kept the question front and centre.