Clippers show they still have plenty to prove as Raptors push them to limit

Paul-George

Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George, right, shoots over Toronto Raptors center Khem Birch (24) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, May 4, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

Mission not yet accomplished.

Kawhi Leonard had a potential dynasty in his massive hand when decided where he was going to sign as a free agent even as the Toronto Raptors were tidying up from their championship parade in the summer of 2019.

He chose to be close to his San Diego home and the promise of what might be when he said “Thanks, but no thanks” to possibility of running it back with Raptors and instead signed with the Los Angeles Clippers.

We know what happened to the Raptors: So many of the challenges the club has faced since and that they will have to riddle their way through in the future can be tied to Leonard deciding one ring was enough in Toronto.

But things haven’t worked out ideally for Leonard yet either. He’s still looking for that next title, meanwhile he might’ve been playing for his third straight had he stayed in Canada, not to mention all the free Blue Jays swag.

As the Raptors were posting the NBA’s second-best record a year ago and coming within a hair’s breadth of returning to the Eastern Conference Finals, Leonard suffered his first professional playoff pratfall: he went limp in the second half of Game 7 as the favoured Clippers coughed up a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the second round and were sent home from the bubble in shame.

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The pressure mounts. The Clippers remain a team that is built to win a title now. They’re a veteran club with no more draft capital to trade and whose most important addition this past off-season was former Raptor Serge Ibaka, a 12-year veteran who missed his 26th straight game Tuesday due back troubles.

Did we mention Leonard is the biggest free agent available this summer?

There is still plenty of reason to believe. Leonard has posted another of his typically excellent seasons – he is averaging 25.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists while shooting 51.7 from the floor and 39.7 from three. And Paul George – whose struggles in the playoffs last season put a huge dent in his status as a top-tier star – has been excellent, putting up 23.7 points while shooting 42 per cent from three on more than seven attempts a game.

Ibaka has been strong when healthy and there is veteran depth everywhere you look.

But they still have a lot to prove. They were barely as good as a short-handed Raptors team who pushed L.A. to the wall before getting caught in the final moments of a scratching, clawing 105-100 loss Tuesday that may have stirred some bad memories for the Clippers and the lingering sense that they’re a team with lots of tools but a poorly constructed box to organize them in.

Toronto gave Los Angeles everything it could handle and then some from the moment the ball went up. Leonard and George might be the names on the marquee, but they were outplayed by the Raptors’ pairing of Fred VanVleet – fresh after resting Sunday – and Pascal Siakam, who picked up where he left off after his 39-point outing at Staples Center on Sunday against the other Los Angeles team.

“I think we had our chances again,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Really executed the game plan really well, I thought, turned them over, I think, 18 times so the defence was pretty good.

I think they hit some big shots, some of the guys that we probably would have wanted them taking those shots. I thought Marcus Morris (22 points on 11 shots) was excellent tonight for them, and Reggie Jackson hit some big shots, too. (But) we fought hard, played good, I thought, for most of the game. Twelve turnovers? Not bad. Twenty-two assists on 12 turnovers? Not bad. Just not quite enough.”

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The Raptors never trailed by more than four and never led by more than seven. They started the fourth quarter tied 82-82 and the game was never more than two possessions in either direction all the way down to the final minutes.

A three-point play by VanVleet put the Raptors up 99-97 with 2:47 left, but a quick 5-0 run gave the Clippers a three-point lead with 2:06 to go. A three-pointer by Reggie Jackson on a feed from Leonard put Los Angeles up 105-100 with 1:05 remaining. That came on the heels of an offensive foul by Siakam, who was called for a charge after going the length of the floor to convert a turnover by Leonard.

Toronto couldn’t pull any closer.

The loss dropped the Raptors to 27-39 as they went 1-3 on a difficult West Coast trip. The Clippers snapped a three-game losing streak, improved to 44-22 and, more importantly, jumped to third place in the West as they try to avoid a first-round matchup against the defending champion Lakers.

Siakam finished with 24 points and seven rebounds, while VanVleet had 27 points and a season-high 13 assists.

Toronto limited Leonard to just 13 points on six shot attempts and held George below his season average with 22 points on 16 shots.

The Raptors’ defensive scheme should be copied by potential Clippers’ playoff opponents, if they are paying attention. In broad terms, the plan was never let Leonard or George have a moment unattended, whether that meant sending double teams, crowding them in zone coverages or simply playing “box-and-one” or “triangle-and-two” and never leaving them while daring anyone else to beat them. It worked perfectly for large swaths of the game. It was mostly Stanley Johnson and VanVleet glued to the Clippers stars, but everyone had a piece.

“I watched Kawhi every day for a long time, so I know where he’s going to, but also those guys are being guarded by five guys at a time. It’s not just one guy,” said VanVleet, who spent more than his share of time on Leonard. “But obviously at my size and strength, just being able to get underneath him and speed him up, and then obviously the help was coming, so it wasn’t like I was on an island locking him down. But definitely try to make him uncomfortable, knowing that the help would be there, or should be there at least, and just try to do my part to make it tough on him.”

The Raptors were without Kyle Lowry who played 41 minutes while putting up an epic 37-point, 11-assist line in the Raptors’ win over the Lakers on Sunday. The veteran point guard’s stated plan was to celebrate by playing 36 holes of golf on the Raptors’ off-day Monday. In potentially related news, Lowry was a late scratch due to back soreness against the Clippers. Also out was OG Anunoby, who missed his second straight game due to soreness in his left calf, a problem that cost him several games earlier this season. Nurse said Anunoby was out mostly as a precaution, to prevent a minor problem from becoming a “six- or eight-week thing,” which would rob him of vital reps as the season plays out, and even eat into his off-season development program.

Malachi Flynn – who was announced as the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for April – got the start for Lowry, while Yuta Watanabe and Stanley Johnson filled in alongside VanVleet and Khem Birch.

In addition to VanVleet and Siakam having strong outings, the Raptors got a boost as Jalen Harris scored 11 points on four shots off the bench in the biggest night of a career that began when Toronto selected him 59th overall in the draft last November.

“It was great coming from the outside before and just watching; and clearly I’m a fan of the game first,” said Harris. “And so there’s a lot of good players on the court and so to be out there and be able to help the team out and be able to push for a close game like that, and I’m trying to get the win, I think that was for me, it was just a good situation.”

The Clippers haven’t had the problems the Raptors have had filling out their lineup lately – while Ibaka’s return hasn’t been nailed down, he’s doing 5-on-5 work with contact, so he’s close. But there is chemistry to develop.

“I think two weeks is enough time to do that,” said Clippers head coach Ty Lue. “Because we have our foundation, we have our habits, we just have to continue to build on them.”

The Raptors don’t have that problem. They are still in the hunt for the play-in tournament, but it’s a long shot. They remain three games behind the 10th place Washington Wizards with just six games to play.

Any hope they have of sneaking in demands the Raptors winning over the red-hot Wizards on Thursday and then pretty much running the table after that.

It would have been nice for them to pick off another win or two out West – and they played well enough to do it against the Clippers – but it wasn’t meant to be.

They can at least take satisfaction at this stage and pushing more high-profile teams to the limit. For Leonard and the Clippers, the only season they can call a success ends in a title.

No pressure.

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