Game 7. One team’s season ends tonight. We check in for the last time with SB Nation’s RaptorsHQ in the latest part of our “3 questions” series, this time with Daniel Reynolds (@aka_Reynolds on Twitter). You can read the previous editions between members of RaptorsHQ and our staff prior to Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4, Game 5., and Game 6.
Much of the coaching discussion this series has (from my admittedly biased perspective) centered around Brett Brown, presumably because he’s on the proverbial “hot seat” in Philadelphia. As a first-year head coach, how would you assess how Nick Nurse has done this series?
Oh worry not, Nick Nurse has been dealing with enough of his own coaching heat. For Toronto, coming off at least one postseason disappointment that felt inflicted in part by their coach, we’ve been waiting to see how Nurse would be different from Dwane Casey. Would he be able to make the bold adjustments necessary if/when things got out of hand for his team? In Game 2, it felt like Nurse didn’t—sticking instead with his heavy bench lineups for too long—and it cost the Raptors the game. Meanwhile, Game 4 he tossed out the little-used Marc Gasol-Serge Ibaka pairing that was able to keep the Sixers at bay in an ugly contest.
The real question to ask of Nurse is whether he’s being let down by inconsistent play by his players, or if he hasn’t done his best to put them in a situation to succeed (and be less inconsistent). Obviously having Kawhi Leonard can mask a lot of those issues, because he’s been great almost regardless of who else is on the court with him. But you have to wonder if the Raptors maybe could have found some better ways to attack, say, the Joel Embiid-on-Pascal Siakam switch, or the mere presence of JJ Redick on the defensive end. Again, maybe his personnel aren’t quite capable, or maybe they weren’t made ready. I’ll say this: if the Raptors lose today, there will be a subset of Raptors fans who will put a lot of the blame on Nurse.
National media has tried to make these second-round series referendums on how key free agents will make decisions this summer, be it Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, etc. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen Kawhi Leonard say something this series. Has anything about this series or postseason as a whole given you any indication about Kawhi’s future leanings?
I wish I could say I knew! In truth, Leonard is definitely not one to answer questions about anything except what just happened on the court or what is about to happen on the court. Getting him on the hook with a comment about something two months from now? Forget it! What we’ve had to go on is his play, which, when the Raptors have been cooking, has been downright inspiring. Is there a future where Kawhi enjoys the relaxed stylings of Nick Nurse, the cranky jokes of Kyle Lowry, the sage-like presence of Marc Gasol, the return of his buddy Danny Green, etc., so much so that he re-signs with Toronto? I don’t see why not. (There is a lot of extra money due to come his way too.)
If the Raptors were to lose in the second round (or get buzzsawed by the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals), I have to believe that connection could win out. The other thing to keep in mind here: it felt like Kawhi was frustrated with the Spurs because they did not take his health concerns seriously. It’s impossible to say exactly what happened, but it’s been instructive to note what the Raptors have done differently. Yes, “load management” became something of a joke during the regular season, but it’s why and how Kawhi has looked fresh in the playoffs. And it’s obviously something he takes seriously. Toronto has to feel good about that, regardless of their postseason outcome.
I’ll ask you about both potential outcomes here. If Toronto wins, how do you think the Raptors stack up against Milwaukee? If Philadelphia wins, how do you view this season?
After Games 4 and 5 against the 76ers, I thought the Raptors could get themselves into a slugfest with the Bucks and maybe pull it out, thanks to the overall majesty of Kawhi and Toronto’s starting lineup. But to be honest, Toronto’s inconsistency with their shooting may be the thing that dooms them. They’ve basically been getting below average performances from almost everyone on the roster when it comes to 3-point shooting, and it’s what has killed them in more than one game against Philly. Against the Bucks, the margin for error will likely be even smaller. Toronto will need to take and make their open shots, and they’ll need something from the bench unit—and I’m just not sure they’ll get enough of either to win in the ECF.
Now, if they lose, I think, yes, it opens the door to a whole-scale roster change. But more likely the Raptors end up bringing at least most of the key pieces back for next year. Obviously Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka will opt into those final contract years. Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet will still be on hand, as will Pascal Siakam (a future All-Star perhaps?). And I’m sure they’d love to re-sign Green too. Does Kawhi re-sign knowing that he’ll have to try and drag this squad past the same couple of teams again with everyone a year older? It’s possible too. And who knows, maybe Masai Ujiri will work some magic on the trade market to help out. My point here is: I don’t think all is lost if the Raptors lose today. (But I also do not at all think they are losing today.)
Thanks to Daniel for this discussion. I’d say good luck and I hope Kawhi sticks around for them, but, well, I’d much rather see him out west. The man has been a terror.