LOS ANGELES – Kawhi Leonard sat out Tuesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers due to a sore right hip, announced before the Raptors took the floor at Staples Center against L.A.’s “other” team.
Maybe he just wanted to take everything in on a busy night with all kinds of plots and sub-plots. Can’t blame him. It meant that for the second straight time as the Raptors visited Leonard’s hometown and home floor of the two teams he’s been so often linked with as he heads into free agency next summer, Leonard didn’t play. It was an ankle injury when the Raptors were here to face the Lakers. According to Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, Leonard hurt his hip in the latter stages of the Raptors’ loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday. His availability Wednesday night against Golden State is to be determined.
But for anyone watching – Leonard included – there was a lot to see, such as his current team man-handling perhaps his most ardent suitor (the Clippers have had a scouting presence at Raptors games all season) without him even taking the floor.
The Raptors (22-7) got their challenging four-game West Coast road trip off to a fantastic start with a 123-99 win. They were perhaps helped by the Clippers playing on the second night of a back-to-back and playing into overtime to boot. The Raptors made sure to take advantage as they jumped out to a 36-23 first-quarter lead and other than some shakiness in the second quarter when the Clippers got out to a 17-8 run against the Raptors bench, Toronto never faltered.
“Before the game we talked about our offence doing the work for us and it really did,” said Nurse. “I mean our defence was really good too, it was just a whole bunch of guys hitting them from all over the place – inside, outside, transition, executed our sets pretty good. Everybody got involved really.”
The Raptors pushed the lead back to 13 at the half, finishing the second quarter on a 20-12 run. They splintered the game in the third opening a 29-point lead and were able to coast home.
The Raptors shot 52 per cent from the floor and 48 per cent from deep while racking up 34 assists on 50 field goals, led by Fred VanVleet’s career-high 14 assists. Serge Ibaka had 25 points while OG Anunoby shook off his funk and contributed 12 points off the bench as six Raptors hit double figures. They forced the Clippers into 17 turnovers which they converted into 24 points, compared to just nine and five points, respectively given up the other way.
It is no secret Canada has pumped a lot of talent into the NBA in recent years, with more coming. Some have failed to live up to expectations – Anthony Bennett, obviously and the flat-lining of Andrew Wiggins, the consecutive No. 1 picks come to mind. Others have defied them – Dwight Powell carving out a solid career as a role player after being taken in the second round as an example, or the solid pro careers put together by Tristan Thompson, Kelly Olynyk and Cory Joseph. But Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could represent a new category of Canadian draft pick: the steal. Not that the 6-foot-6 Clippers point guard didn’t come into the league without expectations having been taken 11th overall out of the University of Kentucky talent factory, it’s just that he’s already proving that his upside may be so much more than anyone properly imagined. He’s started 18 straight games for the Clippers (18-9) who are now 12-6 with him in that role and he hasn’t looked out of place for more than a minute.
One team that was disappointed that Gilgeous-Alexander’s star kept rising at Kentucky was the Raptors who were hoping he’d fall out of the lottery where they were planning to try to trade into the first round to get him. Once he was established in the lottery there was even some discussion of packaging DeMar DeRozan in order to get a pick high enough to get him. They couldn’t get that done, obviously.
The Clippers are thrilled to have him, just as Gilgeous-Alexander was to make his NBA debut against the team of his youth first in Toronto and then in Hamilton before he headed to the U.S. for high school.
“It’s the team I grew up watching, the team I fell in love with the game watching, the Vince Carter era,” he said before the game. “It’ll be a bubbly moment I guess you could say. It will be fun.”
His development curve has been fun.
“He just keeps growing, I don’t know if he’s had any setback, to be honest,” said Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, a long-time NBA point guard before taking up coaching. “He learns a lot and he learns quickly. He studies the game a lot and he wants to get better. That’s why he keeps progressing. He’s been a joy to coach.”
A joy to watch too.
He brings to the floor a rare combination of true point guard feel – “composed” is the adjective that gets applied over-and-over again – in a 6-foot-6 package with a seven-foot wingspan that offers the promise of two- or three-position defensive versatility.
He’s never in a hurry and is comfortable pulling up for a mid-range jumper and smart enough to cut backdoor for layups. His three-point range is developing well. Even just over a quarter into his rookie year he reads the floor well enough to break up pick-and-rolls run by veterans – as he did when he used his length to steal a pass by Kyle Lowry intended for Ibaka in the first quarter.
With the Clippers he’s lucky enough to be surrounded by a bevy of savvy veteran backcourt players while still being able to get on the floor for 27.5 minutes a night while averaging 10.5 points and three assists on 47 per cent shooting.
“I feel like I’m in the perfect situation to grow and learn through my own experiences,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, who finished with seven points, two rebounds, two assists and three blocks. “I have a bunch of good vets to help me every day, teach me things every day, I’m grateful for it.”
He’s just getting started, which is the exciting part.
“The guy is going to be really, really good,” said Rivers. “I don’t know what that ladder is, or when. I knew he was going to start sooner than later, but the biggest surprise is how good he is and how efficient he is at the end of games. He’s really efficient down the stretch and he makes big plays on both ends, and he’s not afraid to make plays.
Gilgeous-Alexander guarded Lowry for long stretches and it wouldn’t have been all that out of line to wonder “Why bother?” – that’s how deep a shooting funk Lowry was in before coming west. In four games since sitting out a win against Cleveland with a sore back, Lowry was shooting 14.3 per cent from the floor and averaging just 3.8 points a game and had made just one shot inside the three-point line – and just a handful outside it. He claimed not to be concerned.
“We’ll figure it out. To me, honestly, it’s such a small sample size that I’m not worried about it,” he said before the game. “I’m shooting all threes and I have to be better getting into the paint, into the mid-range and playing my game and going outside the box that they want me in. I got to get back to being myself.”
But what box?
Was Lowry hinting that being a distributor in a Kahwi Leonard-centric offence was part of the problem? Interesting. With Leonard out of the lineup there were no such concerns and Lowry seemed to make a point of asserting himself early. His first field-goal attempt was a layup, giving the Raptors their first score. A moment later he made a steal and scored another layup. He even got a three to drop as he caught a swing pass from VanVleet – starting in place of Leonard – and stepped into his shot with confidence, giving the Raptors 22-17 lead with just five minutes left in the first quarter. Lowry kept making plays for others – his full-speed sprint through the key to find a wide-open Delon Wright for three in the Raptors’ runaway third was vintage, as were the three rapid-fire triples in the last three minutes of the third that put the Clippers away. He finished with 21 points and seven assists while shooting 4-of-8 from deep.
“Just going out there and playing,” he said of his slump breaker. “My guys did a good job pushing the ball, the tempo was great, we got some open looks and my teammates did a good job looking for me. They always support me but it was just time for me to step up and play.”
Nurse made a detour on his way from Toronto to the Staples Center Monday. His 94-year-old mother Marcella passed away in Carroll, Iowa, and the Raptors head coach stopped off to see his family on Monday before joining the team in time for the game Tuesday night, making it in time to meet the media. Nurse is the youngest of nine from a sports-mad family. His parents building a pole-vault pit in their yard is just one example. Nurse played basketball, football and baseball in high school and he wasn’t the only one in his family bitten by the bug. So maybe it wasn’t a surprise that he made the effort to get back to the sidelines without missing a game. “I’m here because my mother wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “So I’ll coach the game and coach the next one tomorrow and then get back and take care of business.”
I asked him what impact his mom had on him as an athlete and a coach. He smiled:
“She had a big impact because there were nine of us and I was the last one,” he said. “Lots of games. I said ’94 years, nine kids and about 80,000 games watched were her final stats.’ So certainly she was impactful.”
She missed a good one on Tuesday night. Her baby boy’s team did very well.