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Toronto Raptors

Takeaways from the 2018-19 regular season of the Toronto Raptors

#Kawhi
Kawhi Leonard finished with 20 points in the season finale (NBA Getty Images)

With a 120-100 win over the Timberwolves, the 2018-19 regular season is officially a wrap for the Toronto Raptors.

Toronto finishes the year as the East's No. 2 seed with a 58-24 record and would have home court in the NBA Finals, should it advance that far. It's the franchise's sixth consecutive postseason appearance and its fourth consecutive 50-win season, two feats that are nothing to scoff at.

Before shifting into complete playoff mode, our NBA.com Staff takes a step back to review some of the biggest storylines along the way from the regular season.

And in a year defined by change, there was no shortage of narratives to follow…

Acquiring Kawhi Leonard

On July 18, 2018 - 72 days after the Raptors were swept from the postseason by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second straight year - Raptors team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster decided it was time for a change.

In a trade that sent shockwaves throughout the NBA, Toronto acquired two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard along with veteran sharpshooter Danny Green in exchange for four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan and 2016 lottery pick Jakob Poeltl.

It was a decision with a high risk that could potentially yield a high reward - a number of questions surrounded Leonard's health as he appeared in just nine games in the previous year. Adding to the risk was Leonard's impending status as a free agent following the 2018-19 season.

The reward? Having one of the league's top-10 talents in the fold, deviating from what had failed in the past to raise expectations to unprecedented levels for this franchise.

As for the pressure surrounding retaining Leonard in the Summer of 2019, Ujiri was clear and confident:

"The narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone. I think that's old and we should move past that. Believe in this city, believe in yourself … So let's move past that narrative of wanting to stay here or wanting to come here."

- Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21)

Year One Under Nick Nurse

Nick Nurse's first regular season as head coach of the Raptors will go down as a success. Even with all of the injuries and roster turnover it experienced - more on that below - Toronto finished with 58 wins, good enough for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The only season the Raptors have won more games? 2017-18.

The Raptors aren't a completely different team compared to the one that finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, but Nurse has made his mark in a couple of ways, the most noticeable being how much more they are getting out in the open court.

Whereas the Raptors ranked 11th in transition points per game in Dwane Casey's last season as head coach, they finished this season ranking behind only the Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks.

Another way in which the Raptors have changed? They're scoring far less on spot-ups, largely because of Nurse's decision to play one big man in the frontcourt as opposed to two. That better plays to Serge Ibaka's strengths, as he's spotting-up less and being used more in pick-and-rolls, and gives them a more modern look with Pascal Siakam starting at power forward.

MORE: How else have the Raptors changed under Nurse?

The real test, of course, will be how the Raptors perform in the playoffs. The biggest reason Casey was fired is because they came up short time and time again in the postseason. According to Michael Grange, two of the areas he was seen to be lacking was in-game adjustments and "a tendency to stick with the tried and true."

The latter doesn't seem to be a problem for Nurse, but he'll be tested on the former in the playoffs, especially with the amount of depth the Raptors have.

- Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles)

The Rise of Pascal Siakam

You can make a case that the emergence of Pascal Siakam as a legitimate star in the making is the single biggest development for the Raptors this season.

Prior to his meteoric rise from switchy rotation player to borderline All-Star, the 2018-19 season was all about one thing and one thing only: contending for a title now in what could be a one-year window with Kawhi Leonard.

Siakam's rise gives the Raptors a longer runway regardless of Leonard's decision this summer.

MORE: What is the ceiling for Siakam?

With Siakam suddenly looking like a future All-Star, he gives the Raptors either a running mate to pair with Leonard long-term or a new franchise building block to pivot towards should Leonard leave. The former is critical given Kyle Lowry is now 33 years old with just one more season on his current contract. The latter is critical in ultimately deciding whether it's worth opting for a full re-build or doing it on the fly similar to how the LA Clippers have remained a playoff team after moving on from Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

Focusing on the matter at hand which is the 2019 postseason, the 25-year-old forward figures to play a starring role after leaving his fingerprints all over Toronto's regular season in ways that nobody could imagine. But don't take my word for it. Here's what Danny Green recently told NBA.com:

"Yes, I think everybody is [surprised by the season Siakam is having] ... Nobody can predict that, nobody can predict that he was going to be most improved or continue to lead us at times when we have guys out - he's been the guy that we've gone to, who has carried us, you know, when Kawhi is out or K Low is out. He's done a great job of that. Obviously defensively he's so active, doing the little things we need him to do, but also take his game to another level skill-wise."

- Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13)

Kawhi's On-court Performance

Impending free agency with only one year left on his deal wasn't the only risk with acquiring Leonard. There was, of course, the lingering health question marks.

Nobody really knew for certain if he would come back like the player that finished top-3 in MVP voting in 2015-16 and 2016-17.

When available, he's proven to be every bit the same player.

Not only has he put up career highs in scoring and rebounding, he's proven to be perhaps the NBA's best clutch-time shot maker as he leads the NBA in game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final minute. In fact, he's made as many this season as in the previous five seasons combined. More than any aspect of his game, that's the one that matters most for a Toronto team that's been on the wrong end of so many tight games over the last few postseason runs.

Of course, he still gets it done on both ends even if he hasn't turned in a vintage season by his standards. According to a recent player survey by The Athletic, Leonard is still considered by his peers the best defender in the entire league as he received almost twice as many votes as anyone else per the results of the over 100 players surveyed.

When Leonard has been in the lineup, he's been everything the Raptors could have possibly hoped for.

- Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13)

Kawhi's Load Management

Leonard ended up missing a total of 22 games this season, mostly due to "load management."

The Raptors sidelined him for that many games - almost a quarter of the season - in order to keep the three-time All-Star as fresh as possible for the playoffs after he missed all but nine games last season due to a quadriceps injury.

The plan appears to have worked, as Leonard told the media in early March that he felt good heading into the final stretch of the season.

"We've been doing a great job of making sure that nothing flares up or gets out of control," Leonard said, per TSN's Josh Lewenberg. "It's just been great. I'm just happy that I'm able to play ... It's amazing. I feel good and we have something to look forward to."

The "something to look forward to" is likely the playoffs, where Leonard has a history of rising to the occasion.

The last time he was in the postseason, Leonard averaged a career-best 27.7 points per game. He led the San Antonio Spurs over the Memphis Grizzlies in six games in the first round and the Houston Rockets in six games in the second round before suffering an ankle injury against the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

Leonard didn't play the rest of the series and the Spurs lost in four games.

There is no way of preventing Leonard from suffering that sort of injury again - he landed on the foot of Zaza Pachulia following a shot attempt - but the Raptors have done all they can to make sure he enters the playoffs in peak form, both physically and with his level of play.

History says that'll pay off in a big way.

- Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles)

Kyle Lowry: A Constant Through the Change

After a franchise-altering offseason, Kyle Lowry became the longest-tenured member of the Raptors roster.

From being a newcomer in 2012 to quickly emerging as the face of a franchise alongside DeMar DeRozan (with the two becoming best friends in the process), Lowry had just about seen it all through his first six seasons as a Raptor.

Six years after being the newcomer in an offseason trade, Lowry was tasked with helping smooth over the transition for 2018 offseason acquisition Kawhi Leonard and all eyes were on how the two would jell.

Lowry's season began with him averaging over 10.0 assists through his first 23 games before lingering injuries brought upon a shooting slump that saw him held scoreless on Dec. 9. Through it all, Lowry remained steady, earning his fifth consecutive All-Star appearance and he ends the season averaging 14.2 points and a career-high 8.7 assists - good for second in the league behind Russell Westbrook.

Now, the 13-year vet gears up for the postseason for the sixth straight year with hopes of making the deepest run of his career. On media day in Sept., Lowry shared that despite all the change around him, his approach remained the same:

"My mindset never changes: Come to work for the Toronto Raptors, try to win a gold ball. That's the same as it's been since my first year here. That's been my sentiment: Trying to win a gold ball here."

This might be the best opportunity he's ever had to make that a reality.

- Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21)

The Marc Gasol Effect

The rumours that Masai Ujiri would continue to shake up the Raptors' roster at the trade deadline were real. They even included talks of moving on from the team's heart and soul Kyle Lowry in search of perfecting the roster for a championship run.

In the end, the Raptors picked up Marc Gasol from Memphis in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles.

All three former Raptors landed in Memphis and ended the season strong, but getting Gasol - a playoff battle-tested veteran - has turned Toronto from good to potentially great.

Since acquiring Gasol, the Raptors have fixed one of their biggest flaws and turned it into a weapon that could have them playing for a title in June - 3-point shooting.

Pre-trade deadline, Toronto ranked 23rd in 3-point percentage (35%). Since then, they've shot 41% from three - good for first in the league - and made 14.4 a game, which is good for third in the league. Those are huge jumps, much of which is due to Gasol's presences and ball movement on the floor.

"I think the fact that he moves the ball is a contagious thing for him. It's a big plus," Raptors' guard Danny Green told NBA.com. "Obviously, he's got me some open shots, he's found me, but he moves the ball very well. Our team has been obviously playing at a high level offensively because of that. Sometimes he's too unselfish, but it's a great thing to have. When you have a scorer who can do pretty much everything and he's deffering to other guys and finding other guys."

Ujiri took a gamble messing with the team chemistry at the deadline but adding Gasol has proven to be the correct move so far.

In the regular season, Raptors' fans got a glimpse of what he could do, but in the playoffs is truly when his impact will be felt.

"He knows when to be aggressive. He's picking and choosing," Green continued. "Obviously he's still very new to the system, new to the offence, new to playing with certain guys, so when he first came in naturally you are going to be a little bit more passive, but over time, he's gotten better with it, got more assertive, but he's still doing a great job of finding people and distributing the ball."

- Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay)

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