PHILADELPHIA – Kawhi Leonard has been the NBA Finals MVP, won Defensive Player of the Year, made three All-Star teams, played in two Finals, and hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy once. It’d be forgivable to think, as with most guys who played on the Spurs as long as he did, that Leonard was somewhere in his 30s. Or due to his demeanor was birthed on a planet where time stops, irony as a concept does not exist, and stoicism is celebrated as the highest honor.
Kawhi Leonard turns 28 at the end of June.
After the career he’s had, capped by that notorious quad injury and the introduction to Uncle Dennis that eventually led to his being traded to the Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jacob Poeltl, and a protected first-rounder, it’s an important reminder to repeat that age while watching Leonard dismantle the long and swarming Sixers defense.
This version of Kawhi Leonard has been lying in wait, and some team – any team – who traded for him could potentially be getting the culmination of all that experience coupled with health and a true superstar entering his prime. And yet, only Toronto and Masai Ujiri made that big bet. Yes, there’s the risk he’ll bounce in free agency, looming as it has for close to a full year. But outside of that risk is the simple fact that the Raptors have Leonard, and Kawhi is taking wildfire to Toronto’s postseason struggle narratives.
Through four games against Philadelphia, Leonard is averaging a staggering 38 points per game. He’s doing so on 62 percent shooting. To put into context just how insane those numbers truly are, consider this tweet:
Now read that again; Leonard – who has already won Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year – is just now starting to play the best basketball of his career, and that basketball gives him a unique position to affect the game his way unlike anyone else in the league.
“The stuff that he can get off,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said of Kawhi after his team’s 101-96 loss to the Raptors, “and we had two people out there — the stuff that he can do to create his own shot is Kobe-like for me. He’s just so gifted in relation to doing that.”
In Game 4, it wasn’t just that Leonard scored at will. It wasn’t that he was able to get his own shot from anywhere. It was that each and every time the Sixers put together a run or looked to be taking control of the game, Leonard responded. He plays with so much calm and poise that he almost snake charms his way into dominance. Rather than the outward show of emotions that guys like Joel Embiid favor, Leonard operates much more surgically, sneaking up and delivering John Wick-style executions down the court with as little mess and fuss as possible. When it’s all done, it’s so cauterized he won’t even need a Dexter dropcloth.
It got to the point that before he even started his shooting motion at times, the Philly crowd collectively offered a mix between a groan and a sigh out of instinct. This is a noise Raptors fans are more than familiar with — they usually reserved it for LeBron James in playoff games against Toronto.
With two minutes to play, coming off a JJ Redick three to get it back to one, with Embiid ailing, the team missing critical free throws, and Tobias Harris shooting 7-of-23 (2-of-13 from deep), the Sixers still had a chance to win and go back to Toronto with a 3-1 series lead. The bet on Leonard would be a bust, he’d be one foot out the door in free agency and the Raptors would fall behind not only Philly, but Boston, Milwaukee and potentially other Eastern Conference teams as the North would fade into obscurity behind the fog of what ifs.
Embiid missed a runner, and Leonard found his chance to strike. With two men on him, he went left to right and got to his spot. Over Embiid’s long reach, Kawhi delivered.
“Just really growing up,” Leonard said after the game about his temperament and ability to stay calm, “learning from players, watching great players, seeing how they either control the game or just playing at their own speed and not trying to be rushed by a defender. I was fortunate enough to be on some pretty good teams early [in my career], so I was able to see defenses going on deep playoff runs and try to establish that early. I feel like that probably helped me out to today, now that I’m 27.”
It’s not only helping him today, it’s helping the Raptors keep their hopes of a Finals berth alive.
It’s clear the Raptors are galvanized behind Leonard, even if they themselves are snake charmed at times watching him take over a game. There’s a sense that Toronto spent so much time haunted by LeBron as an opponent, now that he’s in the Wast and is no longer haunting him, he’s now instead possessed them through Kawhi.
Last season it took out-of-this-world efforts for James to carry the Cavs past the Pacers, put Toronto to sleep, and push past Boston to even get back to the Finals again against the Warriors. Cavs players did what they could to “help,” but it was the LeBron show, and it became almost expected that James would put up incredible statlines – or at the very least, needed to or the Cavaliers wouldn’t have a shot.
Toronto now knows how it feels to have that player on their side.
“He’s been doing this for the last couple years,” Danny Green said of Leonard after the game. “I think he’s just been smarter and also picking and choosing his moments. We want him to be aggressive, he needs to be aggressive for us. When he’s in a groove, sometimes it’s a gift and a curse, because the ball moves probably a little less. When he’s scoring, we need that. The difference for him is picking and choosing and finding guys when he’s in his groove. He’s still getting 40, but he’s pushing the pace, finding guys, drawing fouls and making the right play.”
The right play was that three with 1:01 remaining to essentially call game and tie the series 2-2. The right play was finding Kyle Lowry or Marc Gasol for a three-pointer – and those guys rewarding Leonard – at critical moments with the defense collapsing on him. It’s up to those players to continue to give him enough help to relieve that pressure so he doesn’t feel the need to force it, and can get valuable rest minutes on the bench without everything going to hell.
Lowry indicated as such after Game 3, stating “we’ve gotta help him.” He expounded on that fact after he and Gasol poured in 30 points combined (on 50 percent shooting) in Game 4.
“We’ve got to continue to play better,” Lowry said from the podium. “He’s carried us offensively and when he makes those passes we’ve got to make those guys pay. And we did it tonight, we made some big shots. Last couple of games I think we passed up a lot of shots, and the right play sometimes is to shoot the ball. We passed up a lot in Game 3 and Game 2, and tonight we didn’t pass up that many shots, we just shot the ball.”
Teams have the tendency to take on the personality of their coach or their superstar the longer they stay in the playoffs. For the Sixers, it’s easy to see them start to embody Embiid and Jimmy Butler. It’s clear the Raptors could afford to collectively play a bit more like Leonard. It isn’t enough to expel the ghost in the machine, it’s time to become the machine. Toronto’s playoff hopes depend on it.