It was a dramatic evening for the Toronto Raptors and their fans Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena.
Vince Carter – again – made his return for what may be the last time ever, Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry played together for the first time in about a month, and the team very nearly lost to the lowly Atlanta Hawks who are clearly more inclined to compete for the rights to draft Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett than anything in the NBA at the moment.
But as the old adage goes, “A win’s a win.” And in the Raptors’ case, though it wasn’t exactly a pretty W against what should’ve been a vastly inferior Hawks team, the final 49.4 seconds of Tuesday’s affair offered a glimpse into a potentially optimal version of these 2018-19 Raptors.
This sequence didn’t appear to start out great, with Leonard missing on a three-point attempt that would’ve put Toronto up by two, but even though the shot didn’t go in, the play design was still solid and led to a very good look.
As you can see in the clip above, coming out of a timeout Leonard can be found right in the middle of the paint. Then, as Lowry triggers the play to begin, he slides up to set a screen on the Hawks’ John Collins as OG Anunoby – the man Collins was checking near the left wing – runs around into the paint.
This forces Collins to recover back on Anunoby and is used as a dummy action that the Hawks fall victim to, opening up Leonard to run the man guarding him – DeAndre Bembry – into a Serge Ibaka screen and give Leonard the daylight he needs for Lowry to send the pass to him for the open attempt from deep.
The result obviously wasn’t what the Raptors wanted and it’s probably frustrating for Raptors fans to see another open three miss in a season that’s seemingly featured a lot of them, but it was good play design out of a timeout that led to the exact kind of shot that Toronto coach Nick Nurse wants to see, so it’s hard to find fault in it all with the exception of the finish.
However, thanks to that miss, we all were treated to perhaps the most ideal Raptors sequence of the entire season.
After Masai Ujiri and Co. pulled the trigger to acquire Leonard, one of the first basketball conclusions many jumped to was just how much better he would make the Raptors’ defence and help spring Toronto’s transition attack as a result.
There are likely plenty of examples you can point to of this during the season, but on Tuesday night, with the Raptors down one with less than 38 seconds to play and the team absolutely needing to get the ball back without giving points up, Leonard offered the most memorable illustration of what he brings to a basketball team.
After collecting the defensive rebound from the previous Leonard miss, Jeremy Lin gets the ball as the Raptors get setup defensively. Lin waits until 12 seconds are left on the shot clock – about 34 for the game – before he makes his move, using a high screen set by Dewayne Dedmon to create some separation between him and Fred VanVleet as he moves to his left into the lane.
Lin gets stymied by a waiting Ibaka and he’s forced to kick it back out to Collins who is smothered by Anunoby and subsequently has to get it to Bembry who then has his pocket picked by a rotating Leonard. That leads to a breathless semi-transition break, starting with Leonard dribbling the ball right into the heart of the reeling Hawks’ defence only to see it whip around — with each Raptor on the floor touching it — and finish with an Ibaka dunk to give the Raptors the lead with 17.1 to play.
Outside of Leonard’s individual brilliance to not only go for the steal but succeed on it without fouling in such a clutch moment and then trigger the key breakout, there was a whole lot of good to be taken from this entire sequence from every Raptor on the floor.
Starting with the defence, the Raptors had complete trust in each other from the very beginning of the possession as VanVleet basically steered Lin into Ibaka, having faith that his big man would be able to stop him before he managed to get all the way to the rim.
With that having been done successfully, you can then see belief from Lowry in Anunoby as he doesn’t even try to help on Collins even though he could’ve possibly collapsed down on him when Anunoby was forcing him towards the free-throw line. Lowry didn’t do this, though, because he understood it was more important to stick with the dangerous Trae Young at all times and because he believed in Anunoby’s ability as a defender.
Lastly, Leonard was sagging off of Bembry — almost baiting Collins into sending it to him — something that could only be possible because of the work the rest of the Raptors’ defenders did on the possession to put Collins and Bembry into that scrambling position.
What’s most exciting about the team play seen during this defensive sequence is that it carried over offensively. Leonard could’ve tried to bully his way all the way to the rim, but he didn’t, and it resulted in a pseudo reward for all five men’s work on the other end with everyone getting their hands on the ball and then a big finish at the end – and a Leonard fist pump as if in recognition of the work the team did.
A very similar series of events closed out the game, the only difference being it was complete individual defensive dominance from Leonard — checking Young from half court and stopping him at the rim — that led to all four other Raptors touching the ball, ending with a great Lowry outlet to Anunoby for the dagger jam with 0.7 seconds left.
Though it was most evident on that Leonard steal and Ibaka dunk, all three of these examples with 49.4 ticks left Tuesday night show instances of the Raptors playing their very best basketball. The kind of ball in which you can see them communicating with one another, and having absolute trust in each other offensively and – most importantly – defensively.
Though the sample size may be extremely small, plays like these are a very encouraging sign for the Raptors right as they kick off the second half of their season.