TORONTO — With three minutes left in the Toronto Raptors’ commanding 108-95 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Saturday, head coach Nick Nurse turned to his bench and looked at reserve guard Jodie Meeks. Kawhi Leonard, who notched a career high 45 points, had put in more than a day’s work. Flooded by MVP chants — the fourth time this evening — he jogged over to the sidelines, high-fived his teammates and took a seat on the bench.
He ambled up to the podium 108 minutes and a postgame treatment session later and said that rather than trying to stay in the game and break his career high, he had already been looking toward Nurse on the sidelines at the five-minute mark, when the Raptors led by 20, signaling that he’d like to come out of the game.
“Individual stuff is not big for me,” Leonard said. “It’s great when you do it and you can win, but my focus is on winning the ball game. That’s why we’re playing this game. We’re not playing this game so we can score 50 or 40 points. We’re all on this team so that we can hear, ‘Raptors win,’ at the end of the day.”
The Raptors stumbled out of the gate — second-guessing cuts, fighting to grip passes away from Philadelphia’s lengthy starting lineup, sauntering up the floor when the edict was to run — until Pascal Siakam (who finished with 29 points) and Leonard, as Nurse put it, “Got the jitters out.”
“I didn’t think we were moving great at the start,” Nurse said. “Again, it’s the start of another big series and we weren’t pushing has hard as I would have liked.”
The Raptors’ tortured Game 1 history is well-documented. They insist this team is different. The difference, as we all know, is Kawhi Leonard. On the same night that DeMar DeRozan, the franchise icon who was shipped out for Leonard, fizzled out — missing his first five shots and coughing the ball up twice in the first quarter as the Spurs were eliminated by the Nuggets — Leonard joined Vince Carter as the only Raptors to drop more than 40 points in a playoff game. He brutalized Jimmy Butler, sped past Tobias Harris and muscled away Ben Simmons, taking 23 shots to get his 45, displaying the patience and force that lately has inspired the occasional Michael Jordan comparison — not in skill or greatness, comments section, but in style. “I just liked the force,” said Nurse. “Pushing up the floor, punching gaps, determined to get to spaces.”
When great players construct great performances, they invoke nostalgia — and then comparison. In 2017, Marc Gasol was on the receiving end of Leonard’s previous career high, when he dropped 43 points on the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 4 of the first round. When asked about it, Gasol said he was simply happy to be on the other side this time.
Danny Green, who has played with Leonard since his rookie year, thought of the other great performance of Leonard’s last playoff run: Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors. “That first half was one of the most efficient halves I’ve ever seen,” Green said, remembering a time when he too was in San Antonio and the Spurs, leading by 21 at Oracle Arena, looked as though they were on the verge of making their dreams come true. But at the 8:03 mark, Leonard missed a pull-up jumper and injured his ankle landing on Zaza Pachulia’s foot, immediately making the Warriors big man one of the most hated athletes in Texas, setting off the mysterious series of events that led to Leonard’s exit from San Antonio, a strict and controversial load management program, and his comeback in a Raptors uniform. “These guys did a good job of putting a plan together and making sure I’d be healthy at this point,” Leonard said. “I have no complaints right now.”
Leonard, predictably, had no dog in the race between his old self and the one that led the Raptors to victory. “Totally different situation. Different environment. I’m just focused on the now. I don’t think that way. I just think about the next game.” That single-mindedness, the ability to filter out every thought or action that won’t contribute to his progress, makes Leonard the player he is today. Earlier in the season, when Leonard was asked if he looked forward to finding his old form, he said he wasn’t looking to recapture the old but to embrace the player he was becoming.
For Leonard, who built himself up from a high school nobody to a Division-I star to a first-round pick to a defensive specialist to an All-Star to a Finals MVP, stagnation would be akin to regression. He’s still climbing the escalator of greatness, a more complete player today than he was two years ago. “For sure,” Green said. “He was still coming into his own. He was an elite defender. He’s become a very elite scorer. But now he’s trying to read defenses, starting to pick them apart. I think he’s definitely more of a well-rounded player than he was.”
Before Gasol’s arrival, the Raptors made Leonard their de facto nucleus, putting the ball in his hands more than ever before, to splendid scoring returns and mixed playmaking returns. But now, a willingness to make unselfish plays is starting to blossom into the aptitude to find the right man. “Kawhi was just in the zone,” teammate Kyle Lowry said. “And he probably could’ve had more, but he facilitated.”
The Sixers, who did not double-team Leonard on his assaults to the rim, will test his new-found abilities in Game 2. “I don’t think we showed enough help,” Simmons said. “I think as a team we have to treat him more honest, be vocal a bit more and try and get the ball out of his hands.” Head coach Brett Brown mostly agreed.
At shootaround Saturday morning, Sixers sharpshooter JJ Redick was asked if he believed Leonard could generate defense. Leonard answered that question emphatically when Redick, who had unfurled four triples in the opening three minutes of the third quarter, was switched on to him. With the Sixers clearly looking to get Redick going, you’d think Leonard would have glued himself to the 6-foot-4 guard. But he left him wide open, at first trying to goad Simmons into kicking the ball out so he could intercept it and be off to the races. Simmons thought better of it, pass-faking and reversing it to Butler, who drove into the lane. Leonard crashed into the paint and crouched down low, as though he was about to rise up and block Butler’s layup attempt. Butler opted to pass to Redick in the corner. Leonard stunted backward at the last minute and deflected the ball, which ricocheted off Redick’s foot and landed out of bounds.
“He’s reading the plays, reading the passer’s eyes,” said Green. “He’s just able to get there a little faster, easier because of how much space he takes up and how long his arms are. He’s able to get deflections on the ball or get a steal or block a shot because of the space he can cover in a short amount of time.”
Leonard’s trademark defense — the ferocity and size and anticipatory power and, above all, the confidence that allows him to manipulate the game — was in full force all night, stymying the Sixers in transition and at the rim, all the while adding fuel to the Raptors’ transition game. When he was a junior in high school, Leonard would tell his trainer, Clint Parks, that he wanted to be the best player in the world. After a two-year diversion, Leonard is back on that path, declaring his supremacy over the Sixers’ stack of stars, with the command and confidence of a man who knows he is above it all.
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