Raptors need to let Kawhi Leonard run if they want to go deep in playoffs

Kawhi Leonard. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – This was the wrong time for the Toronto Raptors to be fiddling around with load management.

After a long regular season devoted to making sure Kawhi Leonard was ready to be deployed as a post-season search-and-destroy weapon, it was time to take the shackles off, throw a little caution to the wind and let Leonard do what he was brought here to do, at considerable expense.

Leonard was ready too. He came out gunning in the early moments of the Raptors’ opening game of their first-round series with the Orlando Magic on Saturday.

He attacked. He dunked. He found the soft spots in the Magic’s bend-not-break defensive configuration and knocked down shots. He had 11 points in the first nine minutes of the game without a miss.

It’s been two years since the 2014 Finals MVP tasted post-season play, and he was thirsty for it.

He wants to help the Raptors get to the promised land, he says, and Game 1 is a big step, his play was indicating.

He stumbled a bit in the second quarter – as did every Raptor that took the floor as the Magic almost ran away and hid – but he found his stride quickly after that.

He finished with a Raptors-best 25 points on 18 shots while grabbing six rebounds. He was 3-of-5 from deep. When the taut, back-and-forth contest was on the line he was at his best – a triple with 1:35 left in the fourth quarter tied the game and his baseline fadeaway over Orlando’s Aaron Gordon with 62 seconds left put Toronto up by a bucket.

The crowd at Scotiabank Arena was going wild. This is what they were here to see.

It was Leonard’s time to shine. This is why you trade a franchise icon in DeMar DeRozan, for one of the best playoff performers of his generation.

But that was the peak moment. The plucky Magic wouldn’t quit. D.J. Augustin, the journeyman point guard who had a short stint with the Raptors in 2013-14, scored on a lay-up to tie the game and then dropped a bomb from deep with 3.4 seconds left to win it.

Leonard had a chance to force overtime, but couldn’t get his fading 27-footer to fall, and that was it. The Raptors were Game 1 losers again, this time 104-100 to the No. 7 seed Magic.

But as they lick their self-inflicted wounds and get ready for a must-win Game 2 on Tuesday, one number stood out more than any other in the box score, and frustratingly it was one they had the most control over.

How does a rested, healthy and willing Leonard finish with just 33 minutes of floor time?

Less than Danny Green. Less than Kyle Lowry, who was scoreless while missing all seven of his field-goal attempts. Just a minute more than Marc Gasol and nine minutes less than Pascal Siakam, who was fantastic with 25 points, six rebounds and three assists in a tireless 42 minutes.

Most baffling? Those 33 minutes were less than the 34 Leonard averaged all season – a career high, by the way – in a year when he was limited to 60 games and handled with the softest of kid gloves as he worked his way back from an injury that limited him to nine games just a season ago.

Strangely, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, coaching his first NBA playoff game, didn’t have an answer for it – or at least a good one – even though playing time is the one thing a coach can manage more than any other single factor.

There are a lot of things to manage in an NBA playoff game, but playing your best player the most seems like it should be at the top of the list.

"[There was] no reason for it, and yes he could have went a little bit longer," Nurse said when asked about Leonard’s relatively short stint. " … the stretches were OK there, I think, and I liked what was happening … but yeah, I looked at it too and thought we should have had him out there a little bit more. I think once I go back through [it], it wasn’t by design to play under 35 minutes or any of that kind of stuff."

And it’s not like playing a generous dose of minutes has been the exception this season. All year, the Raptors have been careful about playing him a lot of games in a compressed period of time, but once he’s dressed there have been no restrictions.

Of Leonard’s 61 games with Toronto, he’s played more than 33:05 in 40 of them. He’s played more than 40 minutes four times.

Hell, last Sunday Leonard played 38 minutes in a meaningless home game against Miami and that came in a noon start after playing 32 minutes the previous Friday in Charlotte.

That Friday-night, Sunday-afternoon turnaround was the most demanding stretch Leonard had been subjected to all season and was proof – we all thought – that “load management” had worked. That he had arrived at the playoffs ready for anything they could bring, particularly given that the first three games of the series will be played with two off days between leading into each of them.

And Leonard gave two massive thumbs up to his preparation as recently as Friday afternoon.

"I mean, we did a good job," he said about the Raptors’ careful approach. "Nothing flared up or got worse. The way I’m feeling today [Friday] I feel like we did a great job."

And yes, Leonard was ready for more than he got Saturday, although he wasn’t about to make a big noise about it – it’s not his thing.

"Yeah," he said when asked if he was ready to carry a heavier load. "But, we could have won the game with the minutes I played. Obviously, I’m ready to play more minutes if need be."

Let’s make this easy on everyone: Leonard needs to play more minutes in playoff games that are in any way in doubt in the fourth quarter. If he’s not on the floor with nine minutes to go, someone should send up a flare. He didn’t get subbed back in until there was 6:43 left in the fourth Sunday. The Raptors’ two best quarters were the first and third against the Magic and Leonard played nine and 10 minutes in those, respectively.

That’s what he was brought here to do. That’s what the entire season has been about.

This isn’t to say that Leonard was perfect, or that running him out there for 38 or 40 minutes would have guaranteed anything.

The Magic swarmed him defensively and Leonard wasn’t flawless in getting off the ball as his four turnovers against three assists would indicate. Too often he waits until the second or third defender is clawing at him before he finds an open man. He needs to recognize and move the ball a beat sooner.

And on the game-defining play, it appears it was Leonard’s mistake that cost Toronto. The Raptors’ big wing and Gasol were defending the Magic’s pick-and-roll run by Augustin.

According to Nurse, the plan was for Leonard to stay attached to the Magic ball-handler, with Gasol dropping back to defend against Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic rolling to the basket.

"Our coverage was to get over the top of the screen and have Marc be up and help on that and then stay home," said Nurse. "I saw the highlight quick coming through on TV quick, I haven’t watched the game film, but it looked like Kawhi thought it was a switch and went under to hold up Vucevic and Marc was still in the up position, but not the switch position, so it gave him the room to get it off."

Gasol called it a miscommunication.

Said Leonard: "We just switched, and [Augustin] knocked down a big shot. Pretty much that’s what happened."

That’s what cost the Raptors Game 1, but that’s one play. How many plays could Leonard have made if he was on the floor for an extra four, five or six minutes?

We’ll never know, but we do know the Raptors are down 0-1 and got there without giving it their best shot with their best player.

That can’t happen again.

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