Raptors show coming of age in face of LeBron, Lakers, injuries

Pascal Siakam knew he made a clean play on the ball. LeBron James refused to believe him. The two laughed in agreement over their disagreement. Nick Nurse, 0-for-6 on coach’s challenges, backed his young star and went ahead and requested a review.

After several looks at the replay, the evidence was clear. The Toronto Raptors were right, LeBron was wrong.

In some ways, the moment encapsulated all one could hope this Toronto team would show on the night. Siakam, smiling ear-to-ear over the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with a man looking to reclaim his throne as the best in the game, refusing to give an inch because he truly believes he has what it takes to breathe that rarified air. A small victory in a game the Raptors were supposed to have no chance of winning. But just as the Raptors learned last year, when your best player truly believes he can hang, and the rest of the team follows suit ... boy, crazy things can happen.

James has been the scourge to many a Toronto playoff run, ending the franchise’s championship aspirations with a violent strike each time it dared to dream.

It forced team president Masai Ujiri to enforce a culture change once, then trade the face of his franchise the next. Ever since, these Raptors have been unrecognizable. They always hustled, they always pounded the rock, but this new and improved version? They let it rip, too.

Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet performed like true leaders. (Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports)

The prevailing belief among most NBA followers was that the Raptors’ title-winning run last season was a direct byproduct of the superstar talent of Kawhi Leonard and the championship know-how of Danny Green. And that with both out the door, the genie was back in the bottle. The truth, it seems, is that there is no losing the lessons of a championship run.

Without the services of five-time All-Star Kyle Lowry and sixth man Serge Ibaka, Toronto sent a LeBron shot one way, an Anthony Davis attempt another, then threw it back down the Lakers’ throats on the other end. When Kyle Kuzma hit two triples to pull the Los Angeles Lakers within six, 180 seconds was still enough time for plenty to go wrong. With the old Raptors — the ones James always beat up on — it always did.

Yet, after James himself sank two free-throws to cut the lead to four, the Raptors showed they’ve gotten into the habit of writing their own script no matter who’s on the floor. Davis had a 3-pointer rim out with under two minutes remaining, and after Green kept the possession alive, Kuzma saw his long-range attempt go in-and-out. The takeaway there is no shots for James and nothing inside for Davis. When you work hard enough, things just fall into place. Siakam raced down the court off that last Kuzma miss and slammed home a feed from Fred VanVleet. A lay-in on another leak-out after yet another missed three from Kuzma sealed the victory.

It’s been just nine games, but what better way to show how shortsighted those views about these Raptors have been by defeating one of the favourites for the 2020 championship, and their arch nemesis, in their own building.

There was no panic when OG Anunoby picked up two early fouls and a third before halftime, no fretting Siakam’s laborious start that saw him shoot 3-for-14 from the field at one point including nothing but misfires from beyond the arc. The Raptors trailed 26-15 early and could have told themselves it wasn’t meant to be their night, but the departures of Leonard and Green haven’t sunk their appetite, in fact, it’s made them hungry for more.

It’s a burning desire fuelled by their head coach, who once again showed that he is a master of pushing the right buttons at the right time. Before the season began, Nurse made it clear that the new faces hadn’t done enough to earn meaningful playing time. That they didn’t know how hard the Raptors play, what championship fight really is.

The minutes have piled up for Lowry and VanVleet, and despite the criticism that has come his way, Nurse has stuck to his principles and refused to give anyone anything the easy way. With the injuries that have ravaged the roster, the new faces knew they were now going to have a minimum of two weeks to stake their claim before Nurse could very easily put the clamps back on again.

Matt Thomas came out and provided a quick little five-point burst to leave the Raptors trailing by just one after the first frame, Terence Davis was inspirational with his complete lack of fear and poise, while Chris Boucher tied his career-high with 15 points to go along with three swats, including a couple that came back-to-back on James and Davis.

Not to be lost in the shuffle, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson showed his absences may have had more to do with a sore groin than an actual coaching decision by literally scratching and clawing for more time as he defended LeBron. He surprisingly made a direct contribution with 15 points in 15 minutes, including a tough fadeaway off a post-up that stretched the lead to 11 in the fourth quarter.

There’s no such thing as a good injury, but the time these players will have to get in a rhythm could work wonders for the Raptors’ ceiling down the road.

But none of it comes together without the leadership Siakam and VanVleet, the two co-pilots of the Raptors’ future. After his slow start, Siakam made six of his final 11 shots, feasting on opportunities matched up against Kuzma to finish with 24 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and three blocks, while VanVleet showed he’s looking for a big bag in the summer with 23 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and two steals. The latter was tremendous at picking and choosing his spots offensively, providing true leadership as a floor general and helping assert a defensive strategy that saw the Raptors guards look to get in the grill of the Lakers’ ball handlers early and often, which ultimately helped translate to a 32-8 edge in fast break points.

Run away. That’s what the Raptors did at the sight of LeBron for many a post-season. Yet here they were standing tall at the end, sprinting toward the finish line. A meeting with James and the Lakers, even before the absences of Lowry and Ibaka, was supposed to serve as a reminder of what the Raptors aren’t. That without Kawhi, Toronto was back to being what it had always been, a doormat to the world of LeBronto.

But seeing is believing, and these Raptors have seen what they’re capable of and won’t let anyone tell them that they can’t. When LeBron thought there was no way Siakam didn’t foul him, Siakam knew there was no way he did and that’s all that mattered to him. It’s all that mattered to his coach.

What the Raptors think of themselves seems to be all that matters now.

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