TORONTO — Could you blame Kawhi Leonard, really?
Who among us, curled up on the couch, blankets pulled up to the chin as the first true wintery blast of the season blustered outside wouldn’t have thought:
“Man, I wish I didn’t have to go to work today.”
Not projecting or anything.
But for the 11th time this season – though the first time in a situation that wasn’t one half of a back-to-back set of games or due to a minor injury – Leonard took the night off, leaving the Toronto Raptors to take on the Memphis Grizzlies without their best player.
Any particular reason, any lingering injuries?
“Nope,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse before adding that Leonard was held out in consultation with the team’s medical staff.
The Raptors have been in this limbo many times this season. Their rare Saturday night home game against the Grizzlies was the 23rd time in 47 games that the club has been without one of Leonard and Kyle Lowry, their two best players.
But, with Leonard out, the opportunity was there for others to take advantage.
One of them, presumably, was C.J. Miles – who has been starved for minutes lately – and the other, evidently, was Danny Green.
The Raptors came into the game ranked 24th in the NBA in three-point shooting and a big reason why is that two players expected to make more than their fair share – Lowry and Miles – have been horrible, connecting on just 31.3 and 28.7 per cent respectively.
Green, meanwhile, has been the club’s best perimeter shooter all season, but even he struggled somewhat in December. Those challenges are long gone as Green tore the game open by knocking down seven of his career-high-tying eight triples in a pivotal third quarter that Toronto won 45-14 on their way to a 119-90 blowout where the Raptors led by 38 to start the fourth.
The Scotiabank Arena crowd even chanted Green’s name – a first for the role player in his 10-year career.
“That made it pretty fun,” said Green, who is now shooting 42.1 per cent from three on the season, tops among Raptors regulars. “I haven’t heard that one since I was a little kid from your parents on the sidelines. It was fun to hear and the fans have always showed a lot of love in this building and it makes it tough for (opponents) to play in because of the energy they give us.”
So a nice night for one of the Raptors’ most consistent performers. And while Lowry didn’t break out, he’s been through slumps before and will get unlimited opportunities to find his form again because he does so many other important things – he was a plus-38 and chipped in seven assists and two steals while shooting just 1-for-4 from long distance.
Leonard being out the past two games (he missed the Raptors’ win over the Phoenix Suns as it was the second night of a back-to-back), though, has opened the door a crack and Miles has been putting his best foot forward.
On a night when a lot of Raptors played like they maybe would have been happy staying home early on, Miles came out with some juice, driving the lane and picking up a foul on his first touch late in the first quarter.
He hit a long three and then converted another runner in the lane – the kind of in-between shot he’s been struggling with as much as his three-point shooting. His best moment came a moment later when he dug in for a steal against impressive Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. – one of five steals Miles had in the game – pushed the ball ahead and then stepped into an open triple after the ball ricocheted around and newcomer Patrick McCaw swung it back to Miles.
The seven-point flurry helped the Raptors take a 55-48 lead into the half and, more importantly, build on an encouraging outing against the Suns when Miles scored 13 points in 17 minutes and went 3-of-5 from deep.
After a second strong game in a row he looked like a player with the weight of the world off his shoulders.
“Just trying to play as hard as I can, man. Bring energy on both ends of the floor,” he said later. “Right now my focus is just affecting the game in any way that I can and I’ll worry about everything else as it comes. Some nights you’re going to make shots, sometimes you’re not, but the energy level, I can control that.”
But he needs to make shots. The Raptors need to make threes. The win against the Grizzlies should be a boost as the Raptors shot 17-of-36 from deep. Who knows, it might catch on.
“Especially for shooters,” said Green. “A guy like C.J. has had some rough patches here and there, we all have our slumps. That’s the life of a shooter. But it’s good to see him playing well coming off the bench for us. He’s been a good spark for us last couple of games playing at a very good pace and picking his spots and taking his time and giving us another threat off the bench.”
For the Raptors to get where they want to go, they’re going to need a little – or a lot – of a lot of things. They’re going to need Leonard healthy and rested, and that seems to be going according to plan given he did get a workout in at the Raptors third-floor practice facility prior to the game.
They’re going to need Lowry at his best and – his missing three-point shot aside – he’s played at his typically high level generally, so probably no need to get overly concerned.
And they’re going to need some role players to play really well. So far, Green has been all that – his 24-point explosion against Memphis was an exclamation point rather than an anomaly.
Missing for much of the year has been Miles. No one has been more aware of his short-comings than him.
“The biggest thing with me is I care about my job,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in the amount of work that I put in and wanting to play well for my team, and I think a lot of people thought that it was outside stuff that was bothering me. That was coming from inside, it’s me. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I want to play well, I want to help my team.”
He’s come through with two strong performances in a row now, so maybe there’s hope that as winter sets in Miles is finally heating up.