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The maestro of load management has been key to Raptors' playoff success

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01.06.2019

TORONTO — Kawhi Leonard leads the Raptors.

He’s led them into the NBA Finals for the first time in his first and perhaps only season with the club. He leads them in scoring. He leads them in rebounding. He leads them in heart-stopping, signature playoff moments. And he leads them in murals as his post-season masterpiece is so evocative it’s inspired street art at various points around his live-work space, otherwise known as Toronto.

But the most important category that explains how the Raptors have arrived here — at the centre of the basketball universe with a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals over the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors — is that Leonard leads all players in the NBA’s post-season tournament in minutes played.

King of North, #kawhileonard Collabo with my guy @luvsumone @soteeoh Regent Park off Dundas St E #nbafinals2019 edition Raps in 7!! #xyzklik #javidjah #kawhiyoushouldstay @raptorsrepublic @raptors

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Leonard didn’t need to be his dominant self in the Raptors’ win Thursday night — 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists is just another night for the post-season’s top performer to this stage — but head coach Nick Nurse felt comfortable rolling Leonard out for a game-high 43 minutes, pushing his average to 40.2 since the beginning of the second round.

The guy whose workload was handled with velvet gloves through the regular season has morphed into a playoff thoroughbred with a plough horse’s stamina.
It’s a development the Raptors were hoping for, but even his teammates weren’t sure would arrive as the season wore on and Leonard’s workload was being managed so carefully.

“We didn’t care that much he wasn’t playing. I was kind of happy about it, to be honest with you,” says Raptors guard Fred VanVleet who typically started when Leonard sat out.

“The only thing is he doesn’t really talk a whole lot so you never really knew when he was or wasn’t going to play and they certainly didn’t post his schedule on the wall so we knew what games he wasn’t going to play.

“A lot of times we wouldn’t find out until five minutes before he went out for the game so halfway through [the season],” says VanVleet. “So I started asking him, ‘Hey man, you playing?’ and I’d get some extra shots up because I knew I was going to start on the second night of back-to-backs.”

The Raptors were 15-7 when Leonard sat in the regular season but his value — and the value of Toronto’s patience — has been proven in the post-season.

The Raptors are 22 points better per 100 possessions with Leonard on the floor than when he sits, which is why Nurse has leaned on him so heavily when the games have mattered most.

That Nurse has been able to do so reflects the outsized impact of the club’s director of sports science, Alex McKechnie, a white-haired senior citizen with a Scottish accent who has as much influence in the organization as anyone other than Nick Nurse and president Masai Ujiri.

When the Raptors traded for Leonard, who had missed 73 games in San Antonio in 2017-18 due to an unspecified right quadriceps injury, a Raptors insider texted McKechnie with a simple message:

“You’re the most important person in the organization now.”

When Leonard arrived in Toronto, he made his priorities clear — after establishing that he was, indeed, “a fun guy” — a few minutes into his opening press conference on the eve of training camp.

He was asked: What does he want for his career?

“Just be able to be healthy, that’s my No. 1 goal,” he said. “Play a long, healthy career [and] be able to be dominant, wherever I land.”

He’s dominant. He showed it all season long as he posted career highs in points (26.6) and rebounds (7.3) and was second-team All-NBA and second-team all-defence despite playing just 60 games — missing most of the other 22 due to “load management.”

The term is a medical one, recognized by the NBA and deemed an acceptable reason for teams to sit out players who aren’t otherwise acutely injured or ill. It was McKechnie — who’s in his 19th NBA season and seventh with the Raptors — who made the term part of the lexicon and was responsible for managing the load by keeping track of Leonard’s fitness through a combination of biometric measures, outside medical opinions and feel.

Shortly after he joined the Raptors, McKechnie — who was not made available to be interviewed for this story — described his approach, honed after more than 40 years working in the field, as a blend of science and instinct born of thousands of hours of in-field experience.

“When we look at rehabilitation and training and conditioning, there’s a science to it, [but] once you establish the science the........

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