Leonard doesn’t just make the game look easy for his teammates; he makes it look easy — period. There is no better example than when, midway through the fourth quarter, Sixers guard Ben Simmons caught the ball at the high post. As he did, one of the NBA’s best passers noticed out of the corner of his eye that Jimmy Butler was seemingly wide open on the wing, waiting to catch the ball for a 3-pointer.
When Simmons tried to slip the ball out to Butler, Leonard was there, getting his enormous right hand on the ball, deflecting it away and controlling it all at once. Then, as the ball bounced back up off the floor, he tapped it over to a streaking Pascal Siakam, who raced down the middle of the lane and slammed the ball through the hoop.
“That’s crazy,” Siakam said later when asked about the play, accompanied by both a smile and a shake of his head. “That’s crazy … that’s something you can’t explain.
“That’s just him. I don’t think anybody else can do that.”
That wasn’t the only time such a thing could be said about Leonard’s play Wednesday night. As Leonard was masterful at both ends of the court throughout, it was hard to remember that as recently as a couple of months ago, it was unclear what version of Leonard was going to show up north of the border.
Last season, of course, Leonard was sidelined for all but nine games because of tendinopathy in his left quad, an injury that precipitated his departure from the San Antonio Spurs. When the Toronto Raptors traded for him this summer, there were questions about whether the version of Leonard that existed before — the league’s best two-way player — would ever return.
It has taken six weeks for those thoughts to be permanently erased. In their place are images of Leonard making one ridiculous play after another and reminding everyone who might have forgotten just how dominant he can be when he’s right.
“The guy, he’s talented, man,” Siakam said. “I think people forgot that a little bit, how talented he is, the things he can do at the level he can do them at. Not just [score] but be on defense and guard the best guy on the team, get steals and do all those other things.
“It’s fun to watch.”
The Sixers and Raptors met Wednesday night in Toronto for a game that might have been an Eastern Conference playoff preview. The action was back and forth throughout, but it was sloppy, too. Neither team was hitting on all cylinders. In the end, Wednesday night came down to Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler. The latter finished with 38 points and 10 rebounds on 15-27 shooting. Kawhi finished with 36 and nine, and he got the win.
The difference for Toronto was defense. Leonard had five steals to go with his 36 points and he was wreaking havoc in the passing lanes all night long. The Sixers finished with 21 turnovers, including 11 in the second quarter (when the Raptors turned an eight-point deficit into a four-point halftime lead). Along with the increasingly sensational Pascal Siakam, Kawhi helped make Philly’s stars uncomfortable throughout the game. Passes were deflected, ballhandlers were harassed, and the Sixers had no good answers beyond pull-up jumpers from Butler and J.J. Redick. Couple Leonard’s defense with his production on offense, and it’s games like Wednesday that will eventually help make an MVP case.
Defense has always been what makes Leonard special; it won him a Finals MVP. The crazy thing about watching Kawhi today is that even as he’s grown as a player and blossomed into the sort of scorer who can carry an offense by himself, his signature hasn’t changed. Other players are called two-way stars if they can play defense; that doesn’t mean they will actually dominate that end of the floor for an entire game. I’m thinking of players like Butler, Kevin Durant, Paul George; they turn defense on and off as needed. Kawhi is always there, haunting teams, waiting on a mistake, ready. It’s not just hype.
Last Thursday, even as Durant was having an out of body experience to carry the Warriors to overtime, Leonard was in his jersey the entire time. 51 points in, when Durant finally got lazy on a crossover in overtime, Leonard poked the ball away and forced a turnover. Durant never scored again. Toronto pulled away and got the win.
As for Wednesday, if that was a playoff preview, it’s hard to say how much we really learned. Joel Embiid was exhausted and uncharacteristically ineffective, while Ben Simmons was invisible. Only one of those problems figures to factor into any playoff series. Kyle Lowry and the Toronto supporting cast got decent looks all night, but outside of Leonard, Raptors were 3-23 from three-point range. That kind of ice cold night won’t happen very often during a playoff series. On the other hand, a supporting cast full of role players of aging stars could be a very real concern when it’s time to compete at the highest levels of the league. As much as the Raptors have changed, some of the same questions will have to be answered come May.
For now, Kawhi is the story. The rust is gone. Encouraging signs during the first few weeks have given way to collective dread around the East, and possibly some remorse. Do you think Boston would like to revisit the decision to keep Jaylen Brown off the table with the Spurs last summer? Leonard will be in the MVP conversation all year, but that’s become obvious over the past week. Between last Thursday and Wednesday vs. Philly, we’ve gotten two nationally televised reminders that the Raptors are one of the best teams in the league, and Leonard’s impact is undeniable. Giannis is currently the MVP front-runner, but it’s also early December. We’ll see.
6. Kawhi Leonard
Forward, Toronto Raptors
25.6 points, 3 assists, 8.5 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 52.8 eFG%, 10.2 net rating
Ryan: We are ranking Kawhi Leonard sixth. Here’s a brief list of people this should terrify: Sixers fans, Celtics fans, Spurs fans, Bucks fans, DeMar DeRozan–Kyle Lowry shippers, Clippers fans … hell, Dubs fans might want to get a little shook. Why? Because this guy is still just revving his engine after sitting in the garage for most of last season. What will happen when he finally tunes his game all the way up?
We’re not seeing a ton of above-the-rim theatrics, but Kawhi stole some one-legged Tim Duncan old-man moves out of the Alamo gift shop and is still getting pretty much whatever shot he wants, just in slower motion. Toronto’s prudent management of his minutes—no back-to-backs just yet—has paid off when they need him most (wins over Philly, Boston and Golden State). If this is what he looks like now, imagine how high he’s going to rank heading into the postseason.
ESPN also landed the mothership in Toronto on Tuesday and Wednesday, giving the Raptors the all-access treatment. These things are almost designed to not create controversy, but since the Raptors are suddenly riveting, they managed to spice things up. On Tuesday, Lowry went on The Jump and told Rachel Nichols that he had a professional working relationship with Ujiri. When Nichols suggested that left lots of room for interpretation, Lowry let the oblique sentiment stand.
On Wednesday, Ujiri went on the program and basically said Lowry was perpetually mad at Ujiri and this year was not any different, even in the wake of the DeMar DeRozan trade. Naturally, told that the team president of the team thought he was mad at them, Lowry felt it was time to clarify his non-comments after passing up his first opportunity, handed to him by Nichols, to do the same. As he talked to myself and Sportsnet’s Michael Grange after the game, he said that it was not his fault that the general public was reading into his words as they were.
“I ain’t mad,” Lowry said. “That’s just the way (the relationship has) always been. Take it how you want.”
I say this without value judgement: Lowry is hilarious.
Anyway, it is a narrative that, in other seasons, could own the news cycle. However, everything this year comes back to Leonard, and he is proving to be as steady of a constant as exists.
He has performed exceptionally well in so-called marquee games, with a 37-point, eight-rebound game last week against Golden State and a 36-point, nine-rebound game on Wednesday. In between, he had 34 points and nine rebounds in a snorer against the Cavaliers.
Loud dunks aside, the way Leonard takes over games is almost casual. On Wednesday, Leonard had five steals and no personal fouls, which is basically impossible. For his career, that is 758 steals to 737 fouls. In two games as the primary defender against the Sixers point guard Ben Simmons, the sophomore has turned the ball over 18 times. Leonard is tormenting him.
“Some stars are looking at it and saying, ‘Why do I want to add to his legacy?’”
And in the process of helping James continue to add to his own illustrious career, by joining him, an established star’s abilities may end up being forgotten or diminished because of what’s required when they play with James.
“Kevin Love, he had to totally change his game to fit, to be a shooter,” said Durant. “Which, I think, he deserves way more credit for switching his game. [Chris] Bosh, same way. LeBron is a player that needs to play with guys that already know how they play the game – and shooters. Like, young players that are still developing, it’s always going to be hard because he demands the ball so much, he demands control of the offence and he creates for everybody.”
To this point, Phoenix Suns veteran role player Trevor Ariza says playing with James may be a little easier for him, but can see why someone like Leonard would want to branch out on his own.
“My role is different than [Oklahoma City Thunder star forward Paul George] and Kawhi,” Ariza said. “They ask them to do different things than they ask of me. Guys similar to [LeBron], why would they want to play with somebody who does all the same things? I can see why they would want to play elsewhere.”
The non-stop media coverage that surrounds James is also a factor that could really turn Leonard off joining LeBron with the Lakers, as well.
“So much hype comes from being around LeBron from other people. He has so many fanboys in the media. Even the beat writers just fawn over him,” said Durant. “So I get why anyone wouldn’t want to be in that environment because it’s toxic. Especially when the attention is [expletive] attention, fluff. It’s not LeBron’s fault at all. It’s just the fact you have so many groupies in the media that love to hang on every word.”
For what it’s worth, Leonard’s fellow Raptors all-star teammate Kyle Lowry doesn’t think it would be all that bad playing with James.
“[James] puts a lot of pressure on you, but he takes a lot of pressure off of you, too,” said Lowry. “You know what you’re getting. He’s earned that, but he’s human. If you’re a strong enough personality, you can handle it.”
Leonard likely has the personality to handle it, but that doesn’t mean he wants to.
ESPN’s Highly Questionable discusses how exciting the Raptors are to watch with Kawhi Leonard in the fold, and explains that Toronto has never had a player this good.
But as the Raptors get set to play in Brooklyn Friday night before a six-game stretch against six playoff-bound teams with a four-game Western road trip included, it’s worth noting Leonard’s big night was not a one-off.
Measuring Leonard’s performance has been a game-by-game, quarter-by-quarter exercise since he joined the Raptors, with his minutes and his ‘load management’ schedule being scrutinized like an anxious parent might scan a report card. The so-called rust coming off his game has been measured in milligrams.
Is Leonard back? The answer seems to be a resounding yes. Over the past four games – three of them against elite teams — he’s averaging 33.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals while shooting 54.5 per cent from the floor. It’s a stretch on par with the best bursts of basketball he played in 2016-17.
Anthony’s memory of Leonard that season was of an athlete on a mission, able to carry the load night after night and playing at a level reached only by the game’s very best, at their best.
“What was amazing with those guys — like D-Wade [in 08-09] or ‘Bron the years we won the championships — was seeing them go through every game with a consistency of high level play,” says Anthony. “The focus, the consistency, that was the thing that was so impressive. I’ve seen guys be able to do it here or there and have a good night, but this was every single night, great play after big play and both sides of the ball. They rebound, they’re on the floor for loose balls, making big shots, huge blocks, game-saving stuff, in crunch time, not just during the [middle of the] game, and Kawhi was just like that.”
Leonard might be the last person to get caught up in a wave of good play, just as he showed no signs of being discouraged or impatient early on when his timing was still coming back and he was struggling with his three-point shooting. He seems convincing when he says his only goal is to control his approach, believing the results will take care of themselves.
“I just pride myself on going out there trying to win games and playing hard every night,” he said after the 76ers game. “That’s the only thing I look at to be consistent at.”
But he allowed after Wednesday night’s game that – the second time in a week he’s gone off in a game played under the glare of a national U.S. television audience – he can feel the game becoming easier, his process paying off.
“[The game] is slowing down for me now, since it’s 26 games in,” he said. “We’re playing every other night, but … making shots or missing shots I try to stay pretty much even keeled because you never know what’s going to happen.”
The point guard role remains as valued and important in today’s game as it was when Lowry began his career. Sure, the advent of the three-point shot has changed things, but that goes for all positions.
Contrast that with Valanciunas’ situation. When he entered the NBA there was still very much a spot in the game for a big man who could defend the paint and play a back-to-the-basket game that would provide a team some easy points.
That’s no longer enough in the current NBA. Today, a centre has to be versatile enough to venture out to the three-point line and defend centres in the league now that are as comfortable as guards shooting from behind the arc.
Rather than become a dinosaur (in addition to being a Raptor), Valanciunas has adapted with extensive off-season work to improve his foot speed.
Look back at any video of his earlier days and the improvement in his reaction time to a move by a player he is defending, or even his ability to get moving from a standstill, has improved immensely.
Those are changes that have taken place over the past handful of years.
The change this season has been to one that sees him coming off the bench more often than not and playing fewer minutes. That’s something no player would ever ask for, but one that has had its own positive effects when it comes to Valanciunas.
KAWHI LEONARD WAS THE BEST PLAYER ON THE FLOOR
This is an important distinction. Joel Embiid is an MVP candidate in his own right. Ben Simmons is a budding superstar. And Jimmy Butler is another top tier talent. But Kawhi’s all around game makes him the best player in his conference. His repertoire was on full display Wednesday. His perimeter defense was stifling. He was a load in the post. His three-point shooting was outstanding. And he threw down some fierce dunks in transition for good measure. It’s a cliché, but there’s something to having the best player on the floor in a playoff series. It’s not too long ago that Kawhi was in the conversation for top-three player in the NBA. He’s played great against the Sixers twice now, averaging 33.5 points across both contests. Even with Butler taking the defensive assignment, Leonard couldn’t be slowed down. That’s troubling for Philly, which has to lean heavily on its top three guys due to a lack of depth. If the Sixers’ best can’t outplay Leonard, their ability to beat the Raptors shrinks considerably.
ESPN’s Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre debate whether the Raptors’ statement win over the 76ers Wedneday night proves they are significantly better than last year.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri was asked about Pascal Siakam and he took the time to mention OG Anunoby who recently lost his father, who passed away in his sleep. #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/mhW9js2NLP
— Danny Small (@dwsmall8) December 5, 2018
More playing time helps — Siakam is averaging 29.9 minutes this season as a starter, compared to 20.7 minutes last season with the second unit — and with it comes confidence. He’s shooting 77.5 per cent at the rim, 55.7 per cent from three to 10 feet, and is 8-for-8 from between 10 and 16 feet.
His two-point field-goal percentage of 69.6 tops the league-leading Raptors.
“I just take what the defence gives me,” he said, “and every time I feel like I have an advantage and I feel like I can get to (the spin move), I’m going to get to it.”
The eye-catching manoeuvre has brought more attention to Siakam and his game off the court — on highlight reels and when it comes to other media attention — but he told reporters in Cleveland last weekend that he hasn’t noticed teams treating him any differently during games.
“I don’t know, I can’t really tell,” he said. “I think that I get the shots that I always get … Maybe we’ll see. I’m going to start looking for that and see.”
An early candidate for most improved player in the NBA, Siakam said on the podcast that winning individual awards isn’t top of mind. Getting better every game, he says, is his personal goal going into every season.
“For me, there’s always things that you feel like you could have done better any game, right?” he said. “You have a career night or whatever, always feel like there’s things you could have done better and for me that’s just what I’m looking for, just trying to be better tonight and play my game.”
Jonas Valanciunas vs. Jarrett Allen
A rare chance for the Raptors to choose to start Valanciunas against a big who doesn’t step outside that well and one that, when he has, had struggled from behind the arc. Allen, though, is extremely athletic and a good test for Valanciunas, who is coming off one of his most efficient and best games of the year in the win over Philadelphia where he had 26 points in just 18 minutes. Allen will also be a good test in the rebounding department, an area the Raptors are slowly but surely addressing. He is a force at both ends pulling down an average of 8.3 a night in total.
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