TORONTO – The Raptors biggest win Friday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder came before the ball even went up.
Out to the centre circle at Scotiabank Arena strolled Kawhi Leonard, ready to lineup against Paul George, one of the few wings in the NBA that can match his size, talent and acumen.
The NBA playoffs are in full view now as the number of regular-season games remaining is down to single digits. After 73 games, you might think the Raptors would have all the pending questions answered, but the reality is they’ll be going into the exam having to guess on some of the multiple choice – unavoidable given the injuries and roster turnover they’ve dealt with all season.
But the one looming largest has been how big a load Leonard will be able to carry when it matters most?
Everything the Raptors have done this year has been building towards that – the ‘load management,’ the building trust between Leonard and Alex McKechnie, the team’s director of sports science and the rest of the medical staff.
It has been about making sure Leonard is healthy enough put a team on his back when they need it.
As careful as the Raptors and Leonard have been over the course of the season in managing his health, it was fair to wonder before the game if Leonard would be available after putting in a tough 42 minutes against George and the Thunder on Wednesday as well as a day of travel.
Leonard’s take after putting up 37 points in 36 minutes – the 78 minutes over two games against OKC is the most he’s played consecutive starts in more than two months?
“I felt good,” he said after scoring 20 while playing all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter. “I didn’t have any complaints.”
Playing in his 53rd game, Leonard was the best player on the floor other than his season-high eight turnovers which were part of 22 Raptors giveaways, one off the team high on the year. Those gaffes combined with the Thunder shooting 20-of-43 from deep were the difference as Toronto fell 116-109.
But that Leonard was on the floor at all is proof the Raptors’ careful and conservative approach is working. As Leonard pointed out in as clear an explanation of what ‘load management’ means to him – he hasn’t sat out 20 games this year to keep him feeling good — it’s been to keep him healthy.
“We’ll see how it goes moving forward, but me missing games isn’t just to keep me fresh,” said Leonard. “It’s obviously making sure I don’t re-injure something that I was out for last year. Like I said before they’ve been doing a good job of reading images and making sure that I’m improving instead of declining on the health side.
“It feels a lot better than when I started the season. There was a little spell where it kind of plateaued but everybody brought their minds together and we figured out a way and now things are looking good and I’m feeling good.”
He got stronger as the game went on against OKC on Friday night. His power move against George for a lay-up that cut what had been a 10-point Thunder lead to four with two minutes left was confident and powerful. He had the legs to hit a late three to cut the Thunder lead to five. He was trying to take the Raptors home.
“I liked the force he was playing with offensively, right?” said Nurse. “He did get hung up a couple of times but he got hit a lot. He did shoot 10 free throws which might be a record for this year but he could have shot another 10, to be honest.”
He looked healthy and more than held his own while duelling with George, who finished with 28 points.
But the outcome of the game was secondary. That Leonard played a heavy dose of minutes in consecutive games and looked strong doing it mattered more. For the Raptors (51-22), the playoffs are everything.
That’s been Nurse’s message all season and he reiterated it Friday even as a recent stumble by conference leading Milwaukee has brought a potential first seed back into play with the Bucks lead over second-place Toronto just two games with 10 to play heading into Thursday night.
Why did it matter that Leonard was good to go Friday?
Coming off a nine-game season last year, the hope was Leonard would build up his strength and eventually play without restrictions under careful management.
When he began the year sitting out one half of back-to-back games, it was always presented as temporary, something that would pass.
But it never did. Leonard didn’t play in both ends of any the Raptors’ 12 back-to-back sets and about midway through the season became apparent he wouldn’t. The only question became was if he’d sit the first or second game.
From the middle of December to mid-January, Leonard had his steadiest diet of basketball of the season, appearing in 13 of the Raptors’ 15 games in the space of 32 days, being rested just twice.
But at the end of that stretch, Leonard played 46 minutes in a double-overtime win over the Washington Wizards – a game in which Leonard had to leave briefly to get his leg tended to — and following two off days, he played 36 minutes against the Boston Celtics.
Leonard then missed the Raptors next four games – his longest stretch of load management on the season – and made a visit to a specialist in New York for an assessment.
Was that the plateau Leonard was referring to? Was that when everyone got their heads together?
“It’s been a lot of times,” Leonard said. “Sometimes it not even the games I’m missing. Sometimes, collectively, it’s me seeing what I feel and I don’t feel like I’m (not) feeling bad but they feel like they I should take the day off, stuff like that.
The four-game hiatus was not just due to his thigh issue:
“It was just me getting banged up and there was some other stuff that came up with my knee,” he said. “And I wanted to take some time with that and make sure I didn’t get more injured.”
Overall details have been fairly scarce when it comes to Leonard’s condition, but what’s shining through is that the approach the Raptors have taken and the treatment he’s been given have been appreciated. A trust has developed.
“It’s big,” says Leonard, who only spoke to the media after a post-game massage, treatment and time in the cold tub. “You have to be able to play for people that you trust and them being able to see what you feel and you just move from there and try to get better together.”
It’s that outlook that has guided the Raptors handling of Leonard of late. The Raptors and Leonard have been even more conservative since his long layoff before the all-star break. Before Friday and dating back to Feb. 13, Leonard played in just nine of 14 games over a period of 35 days with only one of those rest days coming on a back-to-back.
The plan has worked. Leonard is averaging career highs in points (27) and rebounds (7.5) while maintaining his typical high levels of efficiency.
But even though there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs, there can be long stretches where series are played out with games every other night against the highest level of competition.
It can be gruelling.
When the Raptors went to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016, they played 15 games in 29 days with only two of those starts not requiring travel in between. It’s an extreme example as the Raptors three series went seven, seven and six games respectively, but it’s a reminder that the playoffs are no cake walk.
Nurse said the back-to-back set against the Thunder had some aspect of a playoff feel because of the quality of the opponent and seeing them twice in three nights. His coaching staff used the opportunity as a dry run of sorts for the post-season as they came up with a game-plan to counter what they’d seen in Oklahoma City.
It was also a test for Leonard as he followed up his fourth-highest minutes total of the season with a relatively short turnaround while matching up with some of the best players in the NBA in George and his running mate, Russell Westbrook.
All systems go.
“I think he’s in really good position,” said Nurse before the game. “There’s no thought from him to ease back, no thought that was too many minutes. He’s in position to go again and we’ll see.”
That’s all the Raptors can do. So far it’s seems to be working. Just ask Leonard.