I think a lot about sliding doors moments in sport, and there are fewer stages capable of producing them on the highest level than the National Basketball Association. From the order in which players get drafted, to free agent and trade decisions, to intricacies of plays drawn up in timeouts, or freak incidents late in close games.
Few stand out more to me in recent years than Kawhi Leonard’s time with the Toronto Raptors. From trading fan favourite DeMar DeRozan for a guy with one year left on his deal, to that shot against the Sixers, to the championship celebrations that will live long in the memes and memories. I can only imagine what it was like to be a fan of that team during that season, but I can bet it was as wild a ride as it looked from the outside.
Of course it was only short-lived, and that’s in no small part down to the sliding doors moment that brought Leonard — and subsequently Paul George — to the Los Angeles Clippers. Since then, both teams have experienced some highs and lows, though the 213 may feel they’ve experienced more drama on both sides of that scale. In Toronto, things have been a little bit more bleak.
Since their championship win in 2019 and the subsequent free agency departure of Leonard, the Raptors have faced further losses thanks to a combination of injury issues and another huge free agency departure. Kyle Lowry’s decision to take his talents to South Beach felt like another big moment for a team that had been trying to rediscover its identity off the back of that crazy 2019. Some will argue that letting go of a veteran guard to make way for the younger guys on the roster was always their best chance of doing that, but it hasn’t manifested into such great success so far.
Toronto currently sit 11th in the Eastern Conference, below .500, and just outside the play-in. They, like a lot of other teams, have been hit hard by injuries and health and safety protocols this season, which coupled with more budding contenders in the East has left them on the outside looking in for now. They’ll hope to be boosted by the return of as many as seven players looking to clear Covid protocols before they continue their four-game home stand at the Scotiabank Arena.
When: Friday, December 31 at 4:30 p.m. PT
Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto, ON
How to watch/listen: Bally Sports SoCal, AM 570 ESPN
Opposing perspective: Raptors HQ
Projected Starting Lineups
Clippers: Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Terance Mann, Marcus Morris Sr., Serge Ibaka
Raptors: Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Khem Birch
Clippers: Reggie Jackson — QUESTIONABLE; Nicolas Batum, Brandon Boston Jr., Paul George, Isaiah Hartenstein, Kawhi Leonard, Jason Preston, Jay Scrubb, Moses Wright, Ivica Zubac — OUT
Raptors: Scottie Barnes, Isaac Bonga, Justin Champagnie, Goran Dragić, David Johnson — OUT
As for the Clippers, their Wednesday night win against the Celtics while very shorthanded was further testament to the identity that has been instilled, particularly since coach Ty Lue took the reins. This team has faced similar kinds of upheaval to their next opponent, but they now sit a game above .500, after a night in which some of their closest rivals faced defeat to make their ugly win that much prettier. They have stared down adversity so many times in the past two seasons, but continues to find a way to rise above it.
This franchise continues to ride that roller coaster, as these Clippers marry one of the worst offensive ratings in the league with a top-four defence. The Raptors’ reality continues to look more bleak by comparison, with a 15th-placed 109.6 offensive rating and a 21st-placed 110.0 defensive rating — balancing out to a minus-0.4 compared to a plus-0.3 for Lue’s squad. There won’t be any complacency though, especially with some of Toronto’s most important players looking to make their return to action. At their best they can still be a great defensive team, equipped with some strong offensive weapons which could match up to most teams on paper.
The Clippers will once again look to play the role of disruptors, which they did to great effect against Boston, and trust that their defence can weather any storm as long as they have guys that can carry the load on offence. They’ll hang some of their hopes on the probable return of Reggie Jackson, though both Marcus Morris Sr. and Eric Bledsoe showed they can shoulder that responsibility too, as they did in TD Garden on Wednesday night.
Whatever happens when this latest season series gets underway on New Year’s Eve, Lue and the Clippers will feel there are brighter days just around the corner for them to build on the foundations of success they’ve worked so hard to set. As for the Raptors, they’ll keep trying to find that same winning formula that gave them the ultimate year-long thrill ride. Both sides will know as well as anybody how quickly it can all change.