TORONTO – Where do you go from here?
That was the question posed to Kawhi Leonard moments after the Raptors got blown out in Milwaukee and fell behind 0-2 in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, and it prompted a classic and very literal response from the enigmatic superstar.
“I’m going to Toronto for Game 3,” Leonard said, straight-faced.
In the history of the NBA, less than seven per cent of the teams to lose the first two games of a best-of-seven have come back and won the series. The odds aren’t good, but the Raptors know it can be done – they were the last team to do it, and now they’ll have to do it again.
After Tuesday’s heartbreaking 102-99 loss to Boston, the Raptors find themselves in another 0-2 hole, only this time they don’t have Leonard to help dig out of it. What they do have is the experience – being in this position before, with their backs against the wall and their season on the line – and maybe that’s something they can draw from heading into Thursday’s must-win Game 3.
“I think we should know [that] we shouldn’t give up,” said head coach Nick Nurse. “We know the next game is super critical. They’re all critical, they are, but we know this one’s super critical.”
No team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit, so the importance of Thursday’s contest can’t be overstated. Still, knowing there’s a mountain to climb can be an overwhelming thought. Sometimes you can’t help but gaze at the top and lose focus of what’s in front of you.
If the Raptors could take anything from the way in which Leonard approached the Bucks series, it would be that. Where do you go from here? Leonard wasn’t being facetious in his answer. He had that rare ability to zero in on the task at hand while blocking out almost everything else around him. The only thing that mattered was what came next.
Before the Raptors could beat Milwaukee four times in a row, before they could move on to the finals or become champions, they had to win Game 3. Leonard made sure that happened, by any means necessary.
Leonard played 52 minutes in that season-saving double-overtime victory, most of them on one leg. He scored nine of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter, and then another eight in the second OT period. It wasn’t as iconic as his series-winning buzzer-beater from the previous round, and it wasn’t as dominant as his 45-point explosion in Game 1 against Philadelphia, but that performance was every bit as crucial.
Where do they go from here, and – with Leonard gone – who will take them there?
The literal answer, on account of the pandemic, is they’re not going anywhere. They’ll switch sides and sit on the opposite bench for Game 3, but they won’t have to travel, change hotels, or play in front of a hostile Boston crowd, which could definitely work in their favour.
In terms of who could step up and give the Raptors new life in this series, there are a few good options. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet were the team’s two best players in the title-clinching Game 6 win over Golden State. Pascal Siakam has come through in big moments – he had 25 points and 11 rebounds on 9-of-18 shooting in Game 3 against Milwaukee. Norman Powell, who scored 19 points off the bench that night, has been a playoff hero before.
It’s not that the Raptors don’t have a player capable of willing them to victory in a must-win game. It’s that, sans Leonard, they don’t have the guy you feel comfortable banking on.
So far, the length of Boston’s perimeter defenders has helped neutralize Lowry and VanVleet, who are shooting a combined 6-for-33 (18 per cent) from three-point range. Powell, who’s just 5-for-17 from the field, has also been quiet in the series. Then there’s Siakam.
The 26-year-old forward took another big step in his fourth season. He averaged career highs across the board, became an all-star for the first time, and has a legitimate shot of making third team all-NBA. Despite some expected growing pains here and there, he rarely looked out of place as the team’s top dog – until the restart.
Overall, Siakam’s struggles in the bubble have been overblown, but there’s no denying that his efficiency – and, at times, his decision-making – has taken a big hit. Siakam shot 39 per cent during the seeding games and 42 per cent in the first-round series sweep of Brooklyn. Through two games against Boston, he’s averaging 15.0 points on just 34 per cent shooting.
In the fourth quarter of a tight Game 2, Siakam missed all three of his shots, got stripped by Marcus Smart under the rim inside the final minute, and then committed a crucial turnover by stepping out of bounds moments later.
“We just tell him our confidence is in him,” Lowry said afterwards. “We know how good he can be and how dominant of a basketball player he can be. He has to figure it out and play, make some shots. If he makes some shots, it's a different game. If he makes some layups, it's a different game. It happens sometimes. He's missing some shots that he's used to making.“
When Leonard left, it meant Toronto wouldn’t have the best player in most playoff matchups. That was fine, provided the gap was manageable and Nurse could get contributions from his entire rotation, as he did throughout the team’s remarkable regular season.
The Raptors don’t need Siakam to be Leonard. They don’t even need him to be Jayson Tatum, who’s averaging 27.5 points on 49 per cent shooting in this series. However, if they’re going to push Boston and overcome another 2-0 series deficit, they will need Siakam to be at or closer to his early season form.
They’ll also need Lowry, VanVleet and the others to knock down shots and take some of the pressure off him. The time to do it is now.
“I mean, we're pretty pissed right now we're down 0-2,” Lowry said. “This is not a situation we'd like to be in, but it's not a normal situation in the playoffs where we lost two home games, we just lost two games. We got a chance to get one game. That's all we gotta do is get one game and take it one game at a time. The Celtics have been playing extremely well, so we got to find a way to get our ourselves going.”