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NBA Daily: Are These the Same Old Raptors?

Despite trading for Kawhi Leonard and putting together a great regular season, the Raptors are struggling once again in the playoffs, writes Shane Rhodes.

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The 2018-19 season was supposed to be the year for the Toronto Raptors. Toronto lucked out in the offseason.

LeBron James made the move to the Western Conference, while the Raptors won the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes. As it all came together, the Raptors appeared more prepared than ever to challenge the reigning Golden State Warriors for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. An excellent regular season, including the acquisition of veteran center Marc Gasol, coupled with an impressive first-round performance against the Orlando Magic only fortified that thought.

But sure enough, the same old Raptors have reared their ugly heads.

Even with Leonard playing at an all-time level, the Raptors have flopped in their second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers up to this point. After an impressive Game 1 rout, the team fought hard but dropped Game 2 as Philadelphia stole homecourt advantage. In a pivotal Game 3, the team came out flat before they completely lost control in the fourth.

Now, down 2-1, the Raptors face Game 4 in a hostile Wells Fargo Center with an immense amount of pressure on their shoulders. A win could offer hope, but another loss would almost certainly spell the end of their season. If they play anything like they did in Game 3, they almost certainly won’t be moving on.

Despite frequent “load management” absences from Leonard, the Raptors were dominant in the regular season. Their win total was a game short of the mark they set a season ago, and their total numbers looked comparable, but anyone watching the Raptors could tell they were different from the team that got swept by James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second-round.

So, what’s gone wrong for Toronto? Well, a lot. The Raptors have made a terrible habit of falling flat on their face when the stakes get higher in the postseason, and old habits die hard.

Breaking it down, their woes start with the bench. Toronto was lauded for the depth all season long. Their bench unit, led by Fred VanVleet, was one of the best in the NBA on both offense and defense. Their prowess propped up the team and allowed the Raptors to win 58 games despite those frequent absences from Leonard.

But in these last two games against Philadelphia? They’ve been exposed, and badly, by a 76ers squad that doesn’t have elite talent outside their starting lineup.

Through these three games, the bench has managed a plus-minus of -113. VanVleet has averaged just 1.3 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists on 40% shooting, while Serge Ibaka has managed five points and three rebounds on 30%. Norman Powell has been abused by the 76ers, while Jeremy Lin has appeared in just one game in the series.

The Raptors have to take advantage of the mismatch they have over the 76ers’ bench — they may have the best player in this series in Leonard, but the 76ers arguably have four of the top five. If they can’t leverage their bench strength and depth against an inferior Philadelphia unit, made up of James Ennis III, Greg Monroe and Mike Scott, among others, they stand no chance in turning the series around.

Their other major issue has been the play of Leonard’s co-stars, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol. Gasol has underwhelmed tremendously on the offensive end, while Lowry has played down to his poor postseason standard.

In his postseason career, Gasol, brought over from the Memphis Grizzlies at the February trade deadline, has averaged 16 points to go along with 8.5 rebounds, three assists, a steal, 1.6 blocks and has shot 45% from the field and 42.5% from three. But in this series, the Spanish big has managed a measly 6.7 points, five rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.3 blocks per game on 30% shooting.

His defensive contributions in the first two games had balanced out with his offensive struggles — he rendered Embiid’s stat line relatively pedestrian — but Gasol couldn’t even manage to maintain that in Game 3 as Embiid torched him for 33 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and five blocks.

Meanwhile, Lowry has played like a lesser version of himself once again. After he averaged 14.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.4 steals and shot 41.1% from the field, he has managed just 12 points, 4.3 rebounds and six assists on 33.1% shooting in these three games. In Game 3, Lowry shot two-for-10 and was a team low -28.

While unintentional, the Raptors, in essence, have let everything fall on the shoulders of Leonard. And, while he is certainly talented enough to carry them, not even Leonard can do this much heavy lifting against a talented lineup with four All-Star caliber players. If their own major players (Lowry, Gasol, VanVleet, etc.) can’t manage to at least turn a corner in Game 4 — not even win, just show some signs of life — they won’t be long for the postseason, even as the series shifts back to Toronto.

Their ineptitude could have another, drastic impact on the future of the franchise as well. Since before he was even traded, Leonard has been heavily linked to Los Angeles, whether it be the Lakers or Clippers. If they stumble out of the postseason like this, the Raptors may not only miss out on their chance for a title, but Masai Ujiri and Co. could have a long, grueling rebuild staring them in the face should Leonard jump ship.

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