The personality of the Toronto Raptors has made a dramatic turn since Kawhi Leonard left to free agency in the off-season. It’s like the team has had a facelift.
The stoic Raptors are gone. Last year, they took on the personality of Kawhi Leonard and played it cool, bottling up their emotions in favor of the assassin’s look.
But there’s a new freedom in their personality and style this year. They don’t mind showing their emotions. They are wearing the determined look of a team hungry to show they can be champions without Kawhi Leonard.
You could see evidence of that personality change Wednesday night at home against the Sacramento Kings in a 124-120 victory as Toronto improved to 5-2. Coach Nick Nurse is still being Nick Nurse, with his mouth agape everytime he disagrees with an official’s call.
But look at the starters and bench players. Serge Ibaka has taken his game to another level, scoring a season-high 21 points, and his big-time personality is showing through.
On one play against Sacramento, the center blew past the Kings defense for a monster jam and screwed up his face like a madman as he hustled back on defense. He was feeling it and letting everybody in the building know.
Kyle Lowry’s emotional level looks even higher, if you can believe that. And it looks like the others are following his lead.
Lowry illustrates his emotion not so much in the way he complains to officials, but in the way he plays – the way he attacks the basket, the way he reads the play, sneaking past larger players, making deft passes to open opponents.
On Wednesday night, he threw himself so hard at the basket that he ended up with a bloodied arm on the sidelines. He took one look at the blood dripping down and shook it off as a towel was used to clean up the wound.
Look at Pascal Siakam, the heir apparent to Leonard, and the way he carries himself with a new aggressiveness and authority.
This problem is this confidence has boiled over into too much aggressiveness and he has fouled out a couple of times already, earning a public lashing from Nurse.
But after signing a four-year, $130 million extension Sikam is playing like he wants to show he is good value for that money.
OG Anunoby is another player with something to prove. As a first-time starter, he is playing with a boldness we have never seen before. He’s jumping into the play, making shots and pulling down rebounds. It’s as if he doesn’t want to get left behind. He scored a season-high 18 points.
Marc Gasol can breathe fire as well, but the starting center is more contained than the others. And he’s showing that, at age 34, he’s still got plenty left in the tank. He also had a season-high with 12 points.
Gasol is on the last year of his contract, and he could be a trade target at the deadline, but if the Raptors keep winning like this, his position here may be more secure.
Of course, Fred VanVleet, the once-undervalued guard has been playing at a level reminiscent of what he showed in last year’s playoffs. Great outside shooting and ball movement inside.
This is a team that is winning by committee. On Wednesday night, six players scored in double figures, led by Lowry with 24 points. Siakam had 23, Ibaka drained 21, Anunoby had 18, and VanVleet and Gasol contributed 12 each.
Last year, Leonard was the guy who got the ball in the most important moments. Teammates just passed him the ball and let him go to work.
This year, this is no longer a team of one superstar and four complementary pieces. This is a team that shares the ball and shares in the glory. They are playing like a team wounded by the preseason predictions that they are nothing without Kawhi Leonard.
You can see that in the improved ball movement. Against the Kings, the Raptors worked the ball around the court until someone got an open look, and he got the ball. They just didn’t stand back and shoot threes.
It’s fun basketball to watch. On any given night, any player can step up in a starring role. The shadow of Kawhi Leonard has been lifted.
Now comes the hard part. The Raptors go on the road to play four games in six nights. And this will all be capped off next Monday when they collide with the L.A. Clippers and Kawhi Leonard for the first time since his well-publicized departure.
Fatigue could set in. This will be the second game of a back-to-back with the Raptors facing the Lakers on Sunday.
Going into Wednesday night’s game against the Kings, VanVleet and Lowry had played the most minutes of anybody in the NBA at almost 40 minutes a night. How coach Nick Nurse uses his bench will be crucial as the season wears on.
But for now, the emotions of playing Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers next Monday should overcome any player fatigue. This will be the game of the season for Toronto.
The perfect scenario for Toronto is that Kawhi Leonard has a great game (no hard feelings), but the Raptors pull it out in the end – on a buzzer-beating bucket that dances off the rim before it drops in.