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Opinion: Raptors show in Game 4 that they can win without a fully functional Kawhi Leonard  3 Months ago

Source:   USA Today  

TORONTO — The NBA’s daily injury reported listed zilch about Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard.

Not the 1:30 p.m. report, not the 5:30 p.m. report and not the 8:30 p.m. report.

But Leonard is not 100%. That’s visible when he favors one leg. No one is saying what is causing the discomfort. As they like to say in the NHL, let’s just call it a lower-body injury.

In a game where Leonard wasn’t at his best because of pain and after playing a career-high 52 minutes the previous game, the Raptors thrived and evened the Eastern Conference finals with a 120-102 victory against Milwaukee on Tuesday.

That’s not to say Leonard didn’t perform. He did with 19 points, seven rebounds, four steals and two blocks. Even if his offensive isn’t on, he will deliver defensively, especially guarding Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. And Toronto doesn’t win without his elite two-way production.

Toronto’s Kyle Lowry stepped up with at team-high 25 points, and Marc Gasol had another strong two-way performance with 17 points, seven assists, two blocks and a steal. And Toronto’s bench outscored Milwaukee’s 48-23 with Norman Powell scoring 18 points, Serge Ibaka collecting 17 points and 13 rebounds, and Fred VanVleet contributing 13 points.

“We rely on (Leonard) a lot,” Lowry said. “He definitely does a lot for us. But we have a game like this where everyone steps up, it’s a lot of easing the pressure off him doing something offensively for us.”

An interesting thing happened this season as the Raptors managed his minutes and sat him in 22 of 82 games. Toronto won without him, going 17-5 in the games he didn’t play, including wins against multiple playoff teams. The Raptors had a better winning percentage without Leonard.

He played 34 minutes, and the Raptors outscored Milwaukee 29-27 in Leonard's 14 minutes on the bench.

"It's probably one of the biggest pluses we've seen here in the last couple games is that we are functioning very well in the minutes Kawhi is not out there," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.

Leonard made just one of his five shot attempts in the first half, and the Raptors still led 65-55. He had 14 points in the second half, including 11 in the third quarter when the Raptors began to pull away.

“This is one of the nights that we knew Kawhi was a little bit limited,” Lowry said. “We had to come out and be aggressive for him. The great thing about having him on your team is he still gets all the attention. We fed off of that — drive, kick, swing. He gets in the lane, kick out. That's the benefit of having a superstar like him on the team.”

Leonard has been perhaps the best player of this postseason, averaging 31.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals and shooting 51.8% from the field and 39.1 percent on three-pointers. When Leonard is on the court, the Raptors score 111.5 points and allow 101.1 points per 100 possessions for impressive plus-10.4 net rating.

He has scored at least 30 points in 10 of Toronto’s 16 playoff games.

“We stepped up for him,” Lowry said. “He’s given us a lot through these playoffs.”

Leonard maintains he feels good. He wouldn’t blame it on his heavy workload in Game 3.

“Keep going and keep fighting, and we have a chance to make history,” he said. “I mean, it’s no excuses. We’re playing basketball, and we got a win tonight.”

Lowry said they knew Leonard would be limited. Nurse said Leonard is tired, but “he looks OK to me. I think there’s a number of guys out there that aren’t 100 percent on both sides of the ball. But again, he’s got tremendous will."

Ibaka didn’t even realize something might be amiss with Leonard.

“You know, Kawhi plays at his own pace, and sometimes, it’s hard to know,” Ibaka said. “But at some point, I felt maybe he’s going a little too much. So I ask somebody on the bench, and when I heard that, I thought, 'Oh, wow.'"

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