- These Raptors aren’t like any previous Raptors team
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of reverting to what one has done in the past. Time was, when the Raptors laid an egg, they traditionally followed it up with another. On two occasions, there were exceptions — Game 4 of the Milwaukee series after a horrendous Game 3 beatdown, and perhaps one in the Indiana series, come to mind. But every other time — Washington, Cleveland, Cleveland again and Cleveland again — it felt like one really bad step, one bad game, and it was all over. Then came Game 4 in Philly. On the road against a hostile crowd with Pascal Siakam, the Raps’ second scoring option badly on the limp and in danger of not playing, the Raptors still found a way. That game was a turning point for these Raptors. It was when they forged a new identity, one that separated them from past Raptors squads that gave in when up against overwhelming odds or talent (hello there, LeBron James — enjoying the early golf season?).
It was plain to see the personnel had changed, but for whatever reason, a large chunk of the fan base and a good part of the media covering the team were convinced what had happened in the past would obviously happen again. Then it didn’t. And now the Raptors are a win away from just its second Eastern Conference Final.
- Nick Nurse is not as stubborn or set in his ways as Mike Babcock appears to be
Now this is a bit of a cheap shot at the Leafs coach, whom we are told is a wonderful man, if a little set in his ways. And it’s sort of a slight on Nurse as well, who is nothing if not open to change. But through three games in this series, we were starting to wonder if Nurse was going to ignore the fact that his bench was being toasted and simply accept that loss. Now, bench minutes in the post-season are not close to what they are in the regular season, so it’s not AS big a deal, but when James Ennis III is torching you through three games and you are getting basically nothing in response from your own reserves, something has to give. And Nurse eventually relented in Game 4, cutting back his bench’s minutes, save Serge Ibaka, who had to play more because Siakam was gimpy. Nurse revealed after Game 5 he even considered taking Fred VanVleet out of the lineup altogether, knowing something had to change, but in his heart he didn’t want to go into battle without him. The minutes returned somewhat in Game 5 for VanVleet, but Nurse basically went with a six-man rotation in Game 4 and a seven-man rotation in Game 5, thereby eliminating one of Philadelphia’s big advantages in this series.
- When Ibaka is in solid form, the Raptors are so much better
Through three games, Ibaka was not the Ibaka we had seen for much of the regular season. He wasn’t shooting well, he wasn’t rebounding the way we had come to expect. And his minutes were down, which might have been the problem all along. But in Game 4, Nurse tapped him for a full 32 minutes, and the Ibaka of old was back. The decision to play Ibaka alongside Gasol was done primarily to address the beating the Raptors were taking in the rebounding department. He responded with a personal series-high nine rebounds. He shot a little better, too, if you ignored the three-point misses that were by a large margin.
By Game 5, which he had to leave temporarily when Kawhi Leonard caught him on the forehead with an elbow and opened him up for three stitches, the full Ibaka was back carving out space in the paint with force. While the rebounds weren’t there for him personally, his teammates had an easier time getting to them, with Ibaka making life hell for the Sixers’ bigs. The Gasol/Ibaka duo wasn’t that good in limited minutes in the regular season, but it has been a series-saver against a very big Sixers team.
- You can count VanVleet out, but he’s not going to stop
For much of this series, VanVleet has been mired in basketball hell. For four games, one of the smartest individuals in the Raptors locker room could not only not make a shot, he couldn’t even get one off. Philadelphia’s size was such a factor that any offensive contribution at all was viewed as unlikely, bordering on never.
In Game 5, VanVleet not only got back to a more comfortable role as both scorer and distributor, making his first three on his first shot of the game, but was back on the positive side of the plus-minus ledger. It’s not the first time VanVleet has persevered against long odds — and it won’t be the last.
- Kawhi is as good as he ever was, maybe better?
We’ve saved the most obvious take for the fifth and final one because it’s almost cheating. Anyone who has even glanced at a boxscore, let alone watched every minute of this series, knows exactly what it has meant for Kawhi Leonard. Any question about his ability to put a team on his broad shoulders and carry them has been answered.
The load-management games in the regular season gave people pause. Was he all the way back? Could he still be the dominant force he was before a hip injury cost him all but nine games of the 2018 season?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is most definitely, yes.
Leonard was putting up historic numbers through four games and even after a 21-point performance in Game 5, he is having a series only a select few in league history could boast. His Game 4 performance was otherworldly and dispelled any doubts about Leonard’s status in the league as a top-three elite player.
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