Dave Feschuk: Kitchener’s Jamal Murray, an NBA superstar in bloom, did what Kawhi Leonard couldn’t

Dave Feschuk: Kitchener’s Jamal Murray, an NBA superstar in bloom, did what Kawhi Leonard couldn’t
Toronto’s NBA championship defence is over, but at least the Raptors have been raking in the consolation prizes this week.

The club announced a multi-year contract extension for head coach Nick Nurse on Tuesday, welcome security for a career coaching nomad. Pascal Siakam was named second-team all-NBA Wednesday — an honour with significant financial implications given that it bumps his cut of the Raptors’ salary cap from 25 per cent to 28 per cent next season.

And beyond the individual paydays, there was also an unofficial reaffirmation of the specialness of their 2019 run to the franchise’s first title. It happened late Tuesday night, when Kawhi Leonard, the Finals MVP of last year’s watershed Toronto moment, was eliminated from the playoffs as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers in shocking fashion.

Not only did Kitchener’s Jamal Murray reel off the signature 40-point Game 7 that helped the Denver Nuggets beat the Clippers and rally from a 3-1 series deficit for the second time this post-season. Leonard, who came to define crunch-time reliability as the linchpin of a championship Raptors team, couldn’t summon his usual magic. He went a dismal 5-for-22 from the field in Game 7. Even harder to fathom, the man who gave us The Shot in a second-round seventh game a year ago failed to score a single point in the fourth quarter, going 0-for-5 from the field.

Just when Leonard needed a reliable supporting cast to pick him up — well, let’s just say the rest of the Clippers weren’t a remotely reasonable facsimile of the likes of Kyle Lowry, Siakam and Fred VanVleet. And let’s just say the Clippers’ Big Two — the much-ballyhooed matching of Leonard and Paul George — did not a great team make.

Speaking of which, so came the attempts to explain how the franchise that won the NBA off-season — this by wooing Leonard in free agency and trading the future to acquire George — had somehow deprived the basketball-loving planet of a much-anticipated all-L.A. Western Conference final. The lack of chemistry was a go-to answer in the wake of the loss. Leonard spoke of a shortage of “basketball IQ,” no less than the hallmark of the Raptors team with which he won a championship a season ago.

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers even tossed in the all-time flummoxed coach’s standby, blaming a lack of conditioning. But it was only George, who also failed to score a single point in Game 7’s fourth quarter and finished with 10 points all told, who tried to suggest the Clippers saw this as more of a developmental year than a contending one.

“I think internally, we’ve always felt this is not a championship-or-bust year for us,” George said. “You know, we can only get better the longer we stay together.”

A comment like that, you have to assume, won’t go over well with Clippers chairman Steve Ballmer, the richest owner in North American pro sports. It was Ballmer who, on the day the Clippers introduced Leonard and George to their fan base, loudly announced his franchise’s raison d’être between fits of hype-man whooping and alarmingly aggressive clapping.

“Being No. 2, being No. 4 — pfft,” Ballmer said. “We’re only here for one reason. We want to win it all. There’s only one reason.”

There’s only one Clippers, of course, the league’s peerless historic sad sack. Ballmer’s franchise is now 0-8 in games that could clinch a place in the Western final — a stage of the playoffs it’s still yet to experience. The Clippers led by as many as 16 points in Game 5, 19 in Game 6 and 12 in Game 7. And yet the Nuggets refused to die, in part because their Big Two showed up when it mattered.

Denver centre Nikola Jokic, who was named to the all-NBA second team on Wednesday, was magnificent, reeling off his second Game 7 triple-double in two weeks. But it was Murray who kept the Nuggets in the game by scoring 20 points during a second quarter in which the Clippers threatened to pull away, providing timely play after timely play to a team that needed it.

“How many times have we seen it? Our season’s on the line, we need somebody to make a big play, and Jamal Murray steps up,” said Michael Malone, the Denver head coach. “You find out a lot about people in these moments. In Game 7s. In elimination games. And man, have we passed the character test or what? And we’ve done it time and time again.”
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