Despite losing the most clutch player in the entire league, the Toronto Raptors have somehow become...
... better in clutch situations.
That's how many times Kawhi Leonard hit a game-tying or go-ahead shot in the final two minutes for the Raptors last season. Including the regular season and playoffs, he did it more often than anyone else in the entire league.
16 isn't an inconsequential number either.
It happens to be the most LeBron James has ever made in a season. Ditto for Kobe Bryant. If those are the two most prolific "game is on the line, get them the ball and get out of the way" shot makers in recent history, just know that Leonard belongs right there alongside them in any closer conversation.
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As long as he was on the floor in those situations, everyone in the building knew exactly who would be pulling the strings in closing time.
And yet something strange happened this season.
Despite losing Leonard, the Raptors somehow became a more efficient team down the stretch of tight games. In fact, they've been better than ever.
In the final five minutes and score within five points, the Raptors are pouring in 121.5 points per 100 possessions, second in the NBA and significantly better than last season's team, which hovered around league average. Despite Leonard's exploits, Toronto as a whole ranked just 15th in the regular season in clutch-time offensive rating, one spot below the Charlotte Hornets. That number improved in the postseason, though perhaps not quite as much as you might expect given the handful of Superman moments in which Leonard busted out of the phone booth cape in tow to save the day.
|2018-19 Reg Season||109.5||15th|
|2019-20 Reg Season||121.5||2nd|
If this proud bunch is outperforming the best team in franchise history, it might then come as no shock that this unit is likewise sprinting past every other Raptors team too. If you go through every season in Raptors history, that sizzling 121.5 ranks as - by far - the best in team history.
Up until this point, Toronto had only finished in the top five in clutch-time offensive rating one time. That came back in 2009-10, Chris Bosh's final season when the team limped to a 40-42 record that would have been worse had it not been for some unusually inspired play late in close games.
On the other end of the ball, Toronto remains disciplined when it matters the most, ranking 10th league-wide in clutch-time defensive rating. And while defence remains the defending champs' calling card, it's the offensive end of the floor where the Raptors have brought home the bacon in the biggest of spots.
All without Leonard.
Which then of course begs the question...
How have they done it?
The short, boring, obvious answer? By committee.
Unlike last year when Leonard took over twice as many clutch-time shots as anyone else despite load managing for a quarter of the regular season, this year's group has been all about equal opportunity.
Across the NBA, if you look at every team's top two in terms of clutch-time attempts, the No. 1 option has taken on average about 50% more shots than the player with the second-most attempts. It's not an exact science... injuries and trades play a role as do evolving rotations. With the shortened season, that's equated to roughly 20 more shots between Batman and Robin.
Well, on the Raptors, it's almost an even split.
Pascal Siakam leads the way with 49 attempts, just one more than Kyle Lowry. The only other team that's had a more equal opportunity clutch-time distribution is the Charlotte Hornets.
|Hornets||Terry Rozier - 66||Devonte' Graham - 66||0|
|Raptors||Pascal Siakam - 49||Kyle Lowry - 48||1|
|Pacers||Malcolm Brogdon - 48||T.J. Warren - 47||1|
|Lakers||LeBron James - 60||Anthony Davis - 58||2|
By comparison, Leonard more than doubled any other Raptor in both the regular season and playoffs, a disparity that would have ranked among the league's largest this season right alongside Trae Young on the Atlanta Hawks and Zach LaVine on the Chicago Bulls.
In some respects, we should have seen this coming as it was on full display for all to see on ring night in Toronto's very first game of the season.
In eight clutch-time minutes in an overtime affair with the New Orleans Pelicans - not exactly a defensive juggernaut for what it's worth - the champs reeled off 26 points with seven makes in increasingly varied manner.
- A secondary break with Siakam taking an outmatched Jahlil Okafor off the dribble
- Siakam scoring with ease after a high pick-and-roll with Lowry
- Lowry hitting Fred VanVleet in the opposite corner after a dribble handoff
- Lowy driving and kicking to a cutting Norman Powell
- Powell finding Marc Gasol after a free throw line extended pick-and-roll
- Gasol swinging to VanVleet for a corner 3 after a two-man game with Lowry
- Lowry draining a pull-up 3 after coming off a double screen
Seven buckets. Seven different actions. Seven different combinations of personnel.
Those sequences provided foreshadowing of more to come as Nick Nurse has time and again schemed ways to get his guys in position to succeed, examining what's given by each opponent and methodically picking them apart based on the pieces in play.
He's called everyone's number and for the most part, everyone has answered the call. Among the top six in attempts, every single one of them is shooting above the league average of 42.4 percent.
What does it mean moving forward?
There are two ways to look at it.
On one hand, you can simply accept the numbers at face value and proceed with optimism. It's easy, right? A team performing better in big spots than the one that triumphed a year ago in large part because of its ability to rise to the occasion must be in good hands.
Or maybe not.
MORE: Raptors struggles against good teams offers warning sign
What if there's some chicanery at hand? Or at the very least some reasons to slow down, take a deep breath and scrutinize with a cautious eye.
Shouldn't the fact that Toronto only ranked league average in clutch-time scoring last season speak volumes about grains of salt required when making any grand, sweeping conclusions off that alone?
When the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors - arguably the most talented team ever assembled - cruised to the NBA title, they did so after ranking 11th league-wide in clutch-time offensive rating during the regular season.
When the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers - led by the Atlassian tag-team heroics of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving - slayed the 73-9 Warriors, they did so after ranking 15th, coincidentally the exact same as last year's Raptors.
That's not to say it isn't important. The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs, led by a familiar face in Leonard with a balanced attack not unlike this year's Raptors, out-executed everyone in the clutch during the regular season and rode that to a championship. The 2012-13 Miami Heat and 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks, the latter of which is yet another Raptors-esque balanced unit albeit with a Dirk Nowitzki-sized trump card, also won rings after leading the clutch-time charge.
These Raptors are an opportunistic bunch that takes advantage of every opportunity when the timing is right. Unlike last year's Raptors, who ranked dead last in clutch-time pace - the sign of a methodical team more than happy to milk clock and let its master tactician go to work - this year's group runs when it can, ranking third in the NBA in fastbreak points in the clutch with Siakam sitting among the league leaders.
How will they fare when the game slows down and they can't run? How will they fare when teams force half-court execution late in the shot clock?
The jury is still out.
It's not the end all, be all - no single data point ever is - but the Raptors rank dead last in the NBA late in the shot clock in the fourth quarter, shooting a paltry 27.9 percent, with Lowry (6-27) and Siakam (7-22) a combined 26.5 percent.
There will come a point when someone needs to step up and out-Superman the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler or maybe even Leonard himself with the clock ticking down.
It's at that point in time that something's gotta give.
It's at that point in time when we'll all discover whether that regular-season clutch-time magic is real or if it's all an elaborate show complete with smoke, mirrors and trap doors.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.