The Raptors didn’t beat the Sixers. Kawhi Leonard did. And he might just win this series by himself. | Mike Sielski
He had 39 points and 14 rebounds Sunday, and he seems capable of erasing Toronto’s recent playoff misery.
Kawhi Leonard held his smartphone toward his face as he sat at his locker early Sunday night, his right thumb working harder than he himself ever seems to on a basketball court as he scrolled and tapped, the images surely whirring slot-machine-style across the screen.
If he was searching for a summary of what he had done to torture the 76ers once more, to save the Toronto Raptors in this Eastern Conference semifinal series, he should have looked to the piece of white paper in his left hand: the box score of the Raptors’ 101-96 victory in Game 4. It was all right there: the 39 points, the 14 rebounds, the five three-pointers in seven attempts, including the heart-cutter with 61 seconds left in regulation, with the shot clock about to expire, that gave the Raptors a four-point lead and silenced the Wells Fargo Center.
A peach-colored bandage kept clear bags of ice affixed to each of his knees, and before he stood he unwrapped each one, setting the bags beside him on the floor. Then he took three steps and sat again, this time with his head down, this time on a wooden bench in front of the group shower, which was already full. He waited a minute or two. When Kyle Lowry walked out, Leonard shuffled in. Neither acknowledged the other.
All of it, from Leonard’s latest marvelous performance in his marvelous series to the manner in which he plays and carries himself, exists on the same continuum. He is averaging 38 points a game and shooting 62 percent from the field against the Sixers, milestones that Michael Jordan reached just once in a playoff series in his career. Yet Leonard is at once of the Raptors and apart from them, a perception only enhanced by the reality that, because he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, he might not return to the team once this postseason ends.
He dribbles, moves, jumps, shoots at his own pace, in his own style, his game somehow independent of and separate from the game, from whatever else is happening around him. Watch him closely, and you see the beauty. Widen your view, and you realize he’s inside his own snow globe. There is a kind of gunslinger quality to him and what he’s doing, as if he is and must be a man alone, as if he has been called in to clean up the mess of Toronto’s previous half-decade. The summary of those five years: four division titles, three seasons of at least 50 wins, two first-round exits, two second-round exits, no NBA championships, no appearances even in the Finals, too many unfulfilled expectations to count.
Leonard received a bit more help Sunday than he had in Games 2 and 3, but more than anything, Game 4 came down to a simple, timeless question about playoff basketball: Did your best player outplay their best player? Leonard was better Sunday than a sick Joel Embiid and a timid Ben Simmons, and it wasn’t close. That’s why this series is tied through four games, and it appears so far that Leonard is committed to wiping away all that bad Toronto history by himself.
“The stuff that he can do to create his own shot is Kobe-like for me,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown, who coached Leonard while the two were with the San Antonio Spurs. “He’s just so gifted in relation to doing that. Funny enough, with our wings, I think we’ve done a decent job on him. Might we look to double-team him a little bit more? Possibly. But we were able to create, I think, seven turnovers and just try to do our best to kind of show him a crowd. But at the end of the day, that’s a hell of a playoff game. Thirty-nine points, and you really felt all of them.”
Yes, but Leonard’s effect on the series has gone beyond his scoring. The points matter, of course, but his ability to control a game, to neutralize a potential Sixers run by slowing the tempo or scoring at a particular time, matters nearly as much. With the Spurs, he played alongside three future Hall of Famers: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili. He watched them and other stars, he said, noticing how they refused to be rushed, how they could transform the other nine players on the court into an orchestra that only he could conduct. “I was able to see defenses, go on deep playoff runs, and pretty much establish that early,” he said. “I feel like that really helped me out.
His late three-pointer was the product of those lessons, that learning. Seemingly trapped on the left side of the court, he dribbled to the right side. A pick from Marc Gasol forced the Sixers to switch on defense; Embiid ended up on Leonard, who – though seven inches shorter than Embiid – sized him up, side-stepped to the right, and created enough space to loft a shot over him.
“In the past,” he said, “I had times when I’d take those shots and they came up short. I guess I was thinking, as well, at the time to make sure to put it up high and get it to the back rim. That’s what I did. It ended up falling. … Just remembering moments like that and practicing.”
For the Sixers, there is a silver lining to Leonard’s performance so far: They have still won twice, which suggests that the Raptors have little margin for error if, in Games 5 and 6, Leonard’s play regresses even the slightest. Except there’s no sign that it will. The Sixers have double-teamed him. It hasn’t worked. They have put Simmons – who, at 6-foot-10, in theory has enough length and quickness to defend him – on him. It hasn’t worked. What will? “It’s not about just me and [Simmons] on the floor,” Leonard said. “I’m trying to beat the whole Sixers team.” At this rate, he just might.