Raptors' win over Sixers highlights growth since Kawhi's series-winner

You make your own luck.

Kawhi Leonard’s departure was supposed to deem the Toronto Raptors a one-hit wonder, a rental superstar’s giant mitts providing a stop-gap cover for all that plagued a wounded franchise, his exit summoning all the ghosts of the past.

But in defeating the Philadelphia 76ers Monday despite the absences of Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and improving to 12-4 on the young season, the Raptors are showing that with or without Leonard, perhaps his series-winning four-bounce shot in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals was all they ever needed.

It was, by most accounts, the turning point when Masai Ujiri’s trade for Leonard was validated. Lose that game and the Raptors would have made yet another premature exit in the post-season. The sacrifice for a rental superstar would have been questioned, while the previous reputations attached to the Raptors who remained from the core would have been etched in stone.

He made the shot, the Raptors won the Eastern Conference, and then the NBA Finals. And now? Now Toronto has moved on without batting an eyelid, just as Ujiri had promised as soon as Leonard left.

“You can’t hide under a table and cry,” Ujiri said in Las Vegas on the heels of Leonard’s decision to join the Los Angeles Clippers. “Honestly, I’ve lost no sleep, not disappointed, it’s on to the next. I’m telling Raptor fans and everybody, don’t lose one day of sleep, one second of sleep, we’re going to be just fine. We’re going to be all right.”

Toronto may yet be a force to be reckoned with at the very end. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Nick Nurse said the first people he called were Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet and that there were going to be plenty of shots up for grabs, and they’ve done everything but shy away from the opportunity.

Based on how the Philadelphia series went a year ago, VanVleet was perceived as someone who not only struggled against length, but was borderline unplayable against it. Here, in a matchup where the Sixers have arguably extended their size and length, he used his expanded range, tighter handle and thereby quicker moves to finish with an efficient 24 points and eight assists.

Siakam was deemed to be someone who could be dared to shoot from the outside by Joel Embiid, then contested at the rim when the time came. But the addition of solid shooting from above the break (37.5%) and the frequency with which he’s now pushing the ball up the court has changed the calculus because of how far away it takes the fellow Cameroonian away from the rim.

“I think his shot, the ability to grow his shot, kind of all over the floor now, his career path started in the corner and now it’s grown to other areas,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “He’s a proactive, Giannis-type player that’s pushing the ball and his shot is the thing that is really making him most dangerous lately and I think [Nurse] has done a good job of putting him in a position to be talked about in scouting a lot.”

Put in the work and you earn some lucky bounces. Late in the fourth quarter, the Raptors were fighting tooth-and-nail to protect a one-point lead. Embiid went to the line to shoot a free-throw after Chris Boucher was called for a foul away from the play and did what he did all night: miss. After Toronto failed to come away with the loose ball, Terence Davis was called for a phantom foul on a Josh Richardson 3-point attempt that sent the crowd into utter annoyance, and in years past, it would have looked like a back-breaking turning point.

Yet, inexplicably, after Richardson had proved a thorn in the Raptors’ side with 23 points to that point, he missed once, missed a second time, and then a third time. The crowd raised their decibel level as they felt their volume take its toll on Richardson, and after the last miss, though it wasn’t as loud as when Leonard’s shot went down, you could hear a little bit of what it, and the events that followed, meant.

The perceived glass ceiling for a franchise that once suggested it was made of plexiglass is gone. The best of things kept happening after the bounce shot, and the Raptors — including their fans — keep believing the best of things will happen because of it.

In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey’s perception of life changes after an angel takes him on a tour of a world that existed without him ever being born. As he realizes the difference his life made to those around him, he became all the more appreciative of the life he had. Leonard left and the assumption from outsiders was that the Raptors were nothing without him, but the indelible mark that shot and everything that transpired after it left on the franchise shines through on each and every single night.

“None of us would be, I think, correct if we didn’t think there was some of that,” Brown said. “There’s gotta be a confidence. They’re the NBA champs. How can that not produce some level of confidence and extra boost on how they perform?”

Nurse offered no excuses when Matt Thomas was added to an injury list that was already five players long. Marc Gasol didn’t get caught up in scoring just three points on 1-of-8 shooting, he just went about his business and held Embiid to zero while racking up nine assists. No Raptor blinked when they started the fourth quarter 3-of-12. Instead, their two best players looked the deficit in the eye and helped close the game on a 10-0 run while Philadelphia committed a series of head-scratching mistakes to take themselves out of it.

The saying goes that it’s better to be lucky than good, but these Raptors are showing that luck seems to follow you when you’re just that good.

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