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Kawhi dominated Sixers-Raptors Game 1 like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan would have | Marcus Hayes

Kawhi Leonard is making a case to be the top free agent on the market as he takes his incomparable game to yet another level in a Game One win over the Sixers.

Kawhi Leonard, left, of the Raptors  drives by Jimmy bUtler, center, and other sixer defenders during the 1st half of their NBA playoff game at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on April 27, 2019.
Kawhi Leonard, left, of the Raptors drives by Jimmy bUtler, center, and other sixer defenders during the 1st half of their NBA playoff game at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on April 27, 2019.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

TORONTO -- Teams didn’t whine when they lost to Michael Jordan. They didn’t squeal when Kobe Bryant took them out. There simply was no answer for Kobe and Mike. They scored at will, and they defended like fiends, and they elevated the game of every teammate. They drew “M-V-P" chants every night.

So now, let’s not hear a chorus of moans as Kawhi Leonard disassembles the 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He’s the best two-way player, the most complete player, since they ruled the NBA. Because he’s the closest thing we’ve seen to Mike and Kobe.

Brett Brown agreed.

“Yeah. Yeah,” Brown told me. His eyes lost focused, his thoughts now far away. Brown hadn’t thought of Leonard quite this way, but, faced with the idea, he paused. His eyes regained focus, and locked on mine, and he said, a little awed: "Like those guys.

"Think about that.”

Think about that.

Kawhi averaged 27 points in the first-round win over the Magic. He dropped 27 on the Sixers in the first half of Game 1 on Saturday night, against five different defenders. By the end of the night, he’d scored on Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, James Ennis, Tobias Harris, Furkan Korkmaz, and Joel Embiid.

He finished with 45, his playoff career high. He made 16 of 23 shots and three of seven three-pointers. He made 10 of 11 free throws. He had 11 rebounds. He helped Pascal Siakam drop 29 on 12-of-15 shooting. He heard “M-V-P” chants all night.

Brown coached Leonard as a Spurs assistant in Leonard’s first two seasons in the NBA, and he has kept a weather eye on his former pupil ever since, but neither Brown nor anyone else foresaw Leonard becoming like Kobe, or like Mike.

Leonard once was a straight-line driver who generally jumped off one foot and sometimes lost control. He has developed into a player who will probe the paint, locate a defender on his hip and elevate off two feet. Or he will keep his dibble alive, and spin. Or he will wait for the defender to commit, then duck under his arms and either score, draw a foul, or both. He manipulates the entire defense. He is always under control. Like Kobe. Like Mike.

Brown can barely believe the growth.

“To look at his skill package tonight, and the variety of ways that he scored, and could get his shot off, on some pretty good defensive players and big athletes, was incredibly impressive,” Brown said.

Leonard has averaged 21.2 points, 25.5 points, and 26.6 points in his last three full seasons (he played nine games last season). He is averaging 30.7 points in his six playoff games. He has found another level in the postseason, just like Mike and Kobe in their prime.

“It shows how much hard work I’ve put in from Year 1,” Leonard said.

At times, it seemed like Jordan or Kobe had un-retired. Lots of times. Early. Mid-game. Late.

Leonard dunked with 9 minutes, 28 seconds to play in the first period, which cut the Sixers’ lead to 7-4 and changed everything. The Raptors outscored the Sixers, 33-14, in the next 6:05. Leonard scored 17 of those points. He was 7-for-7, with a three-pointer and two free throws.

In that six-minute span, Kawhi could have scored on Bobby Jones.

There have been other players since Mike reigned who have proven lethally efficient on both ends. LeBron, perhaps the most dominant hybrid player in NBA history, has never been the defender Mike and Kobe were. Kawhi is superior to both. Russell Westbrook is a better athlete, but he lacks discipline and polish. Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and James Harden, all superb scorers, as defenders range from generally indifferent (Durant and Steph) to utterly indifferent (Harden).

Like Durant, who is 30, Leonard, who is 27, can be a free agent after this season. Durant scored 45, then 50, in the Warriors’ last two playoff games, against the Clippers.

It’s becoming tougher to decide which is more valuable.

Leonard has been a complete offensive player since the 2015-16 season, when he won his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award. Jordan won it once. Kobe never won it.

That season, 2015-16, was the first season Leonard made the All Star team. He made 44.3 percent of his threes that season, a percentage Jordan and Kobe never touched.

Leonard made his third All-Star team this season. He’s a fixture. At this moment, only one other player can compete for the title of best all-around player. He shared the court with Leonard. It is Embiid.

Embiid has never beaten Kawhi Leonard. He remained especially ineffective when Marc Gasol defended him Saturday night. Embiid finished with 16 points on 5-for-18 shooting. He’ll be paid by the same governing body, but he wasn’t in Leonard’s league.

The Sixers have no one like Gasol to challenge Leonard. He was breathtaking no matter who defended him.

His cross-cross-drive-spin midway through second quarter against Butler even brought Drake and his ugly sweater out of their seat.

He started the second half with an up-and-under shot against Simmons. He hit a jumper over Simmons. Another over Embiid. A three-pointer in the fourth quarter over Harris, then a turnaround jumper over the same victim, for an 18-point lead with 7:06 to play.

He ate, and he fed. He drew a double team from Embiid and Simmons that led to a Gasol dunk.

Blocked Harris, which led to a Siakam dunk. He drew a triple-team that left Danny Green open for a three-pointer. He was everywhere. He did everything. He set up Siakam for a three-pointer. He turned his first of his two steals into those free throws.

He was incomparable.

Just like Kobe.

Just like Mike.