As the clocks inside Chicago’s United Center counted down toward zero, Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry calmly dribbled the basketball, the rim dead in his sights, with his team in need of a basket.
These are the times a season ago when the Raptors would have turned to Kawhi Leonard, who would put the Raptors on his door-frame-wide shoulders and close games, making the big shot or getting the big stop.
But he’s gone, meaning things had to change. Except one.
“We know what our goal is — same as last year,” Lowry said of defending the Raptors’ first NBA title.
So he turned the corner, found an extra burst of speed and bulldozed the Bulls defender in his way for what turned out to be the winning basket Tuesday in a 93-92 victory over the Chicago Bulls that ended the Raptors’ losing streak at three games.
“Had ‘em all the way,” coach Nick Nurse said jokingly.
The hope in the Toronto locker room is that victories like the one Tuesday are a carry-over from last season, a mentality that came with Leonard last season.
In the first season of “load management,” Toronto had to find ways to win in the games Leonard sat. Instead of moping, they embraced being short-handed and were 17-5 without him. When he was back, the Raptors had few problems staring down adversity.
Operating with the cloud of Leonard’s likely departure hanging over them, Toronto began the postseason with a clunker against the Orlando Magic. The Raptors responded to win the next four games. Toronto trailed Philadelphia 2-1 with Game 4 on the road and rebounded, Leonard hitting the winner in Game 7 with a shot that bounced three times on the rim.
In the Eastern Conference finals, Toronto trailed the Milwaukee Bucks two games to zero before ripping off four consecutive victories, setting the stage for their six-game NBA Finals victory over the Golden State Warriors.
Although the general rule — one of Clippers coach Doc Rivers’ favorites — is that each season brings a new team with no carry-over, that only applies to teams that don’t win. The ones that do? They bring that with them, Toronto center Marc Gasol said.
“Confidence. Experience. Any experience you get through anything, in sports or in life, you know, it makes you who you are as a person,” Gasol said. “And who you are as a person influences who you are as a player. I think every experience you get, good or bad, you carry on a lot of that.”
Although Toronto didn’t replace Leonard with another All-NBA player, the Raptors still have visions of contending thanks to returning players like guard Fred VanVleet, forward Pascal Siakam and veteran big man Serge Ibaka.
“I think it’s showed itself quite a bit in the early part of the season here,” Nurse said. “Again, I think winning those things, and I’m no expert, requires a lot of special players. I’ve been saying that a lot this year. The IQ, the intelligence of guys like Gasol, Lowry, VanVleet, the specialness of Siakam. Ibaka, when he gets playing, is an intimidating factor out there. There are some special guys out there. I think they’ve showed that in the early parts of the season.”
The numbers back that up, especially considering that Toronto has had to play without Lowry and Ibaka for long stretches because of injury.
The Raptors are in the middle of the playoff pack in the East, chasing the streaking Bucks. The most commonly used analytic to prove how good a team is — net rating — has the Raptors ranked behind the Bucks, Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics.
The Raptors know that duplicating last season’s success without Leonard is going to be more difficult. They might be reminded of that when they see him get his championship ring Wednesday night in his first game in Toronto, the highlights that will play surely reminding them of the caliber of player they lost.
“We knew it was going to be hard. We knew it was going to be different,” Ibaka said. “But we believe.”
That belief grew stronger when the Raptors’ experience, desire and toughness helped them eek out a victory over the Bulls.
“We find a way,” Gasol said.
Champions usually do.