2-2 – Game 5 tonight at home…let’s do this!
It’s something Nick Nurse seemed hesitant to do all season long.
A year ago, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas proved a formidable duo in the frontcourt. Despite what conversation may have suggested, that pairing helped the Raptors outscore opponents handily. The Raptors eventually felt the need to come off the pairing for greater lineup and matchup flexibility in the postseason, then doubled down by more or less announcing the dual-big approach was done for 2018-19. Ibaka and Valanciunas — and later Marc Gasol — would platoon the centre position, eschewing larger looks thanks in large part to Pascal Siakam breaking out and eating up a ton of power forward minutes.
It was understandable, though at times I lamented the lack of recent sample just in case that look was needed at some point. After the Gasol acquisition, he spent just 31 minutes alongside Ibaka, spread out over a few games with some zone defence sprinkled in to help the fit at that end. The results were moderately positive, even if it was too small a sample to judge. Against the Orlando Magic, Nurse tried it only briefly in the face of OG Anunoby’s injury.
On Sunday, Nurse went to the Ibaka-Gasol pairing early and often. Still down Anunoby, with Siakam fighting through a calf contusion and with size proving an issue throughout the last two games of the series, an Ibaka-Gasol frontcourt was deemed preferable to staying small, playing under-performing bench pieces and dealing with the same issues. Ibaka at power forward would present new ones — defending Tobias Harris in space, Harris-Joel Embiid pick-and-rolls, and so on — but the rebounding edge and ability to play two of their best six players in the series more was a worthy gamble.
It paid off. The Ibaka-Gasol pairing went plus-7 in over 23 minutes together, with most of the gain coming on the defensive end. Ibaka worked his tail off in this one, helping make up for the poor on-paper matchup and some very errant 3-point attempts. The pair combined for 71 minutes total, helping balance out some of the size disadvantage and helping the Raptors play closer to even on the glass.
This was not a move that would work without question. Nurse deserves credit for going to it. Maybe this will help further along the conversation that big can’t mean better and small-ball is not necessarily a panacea.
In a league where conversations run a 24/7-365 day cycle, it’s understandable why the true greatness of Leonard could have been forgotten. This is an era where what’s new and shiny today is stale and archaic tomorrow. Luka Doncic was almost an all-star in his rookie season and Giannis Antetokounmpo may well be the league’s MVP for the first time.
LeBron James’ absence for over 25 regular season games and these entire playoffs shows there is a throne waiting to be claimed, and while he may have purchased some immunity despite losing the last couple years with the greatest Finals comeback against the greatest regular season team, 3-4 and only getting older looms larger than the infamous 3-1 now. Durant — on the back of two Finals MVPs — is making an incredibly compelling case for his own right to it, although doubters will still place an asterisk based on the supporting cast around him.
Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard, left, drives against Philadelphia 76ers’ Jimmy Butler, right, during the second half of Game 4 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Sunday, May 5, 2019, in Philadelphia. The Raptors won 101-96. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Leonard, whose name remained in the periphery of the media for dramatic purposes as the circus act between those closest to him and the San Antonio Spurs enveloped the regular season, submerged underneath conversations surrounding the game’s best with just nine games played. Despite some MVP calibre numbers this season, load management didn’t help his case this year. It was hard to truly evaluate where his level was compared to other elite stars who were playing in back-to-backs and shouldering the team’s load night after night.
All those doubts have been eviscerated with his performances through nine playoff games, and especially the last four. Gone yesterday and here today, it is the Raptors who must now keep Leonard in the conversation. Lose the series and Leonard fails to see his name where it belongs and there’s the potential for a whole domino effect in the summer from there. When the Boston Celtics decimated the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1, questions were immediately raised over the legitimacy of Antetokounmpo’s claim to be the best in the game. Two games later, those conversations seem silly.
What Leonard’s performances thus far have shown is that he is worthy of the throne, but in the best league in the world where the margins are ever so thin, it may just come down to who the last man standing is. While the status of whether Leonard will stay or go has been tethered to what the Raptors do this postseason, much of that inextricable link comprises of Leonard viewing Toronto as a place where he can be viewed as the best in the game.
There’s delicacy in Leonard’s every statement. Everything he says, he means with 100 percent of his whole heart. It feels as if he has innate restrictions on anger and self-importance. He’s withstood the tests of time, lived through the lows of his career, and still been who we met in the 2014 Finals.
The ever-presence of Leonard is wonderful, and even opposing teams can’t even hate on him. We really had a moment where he told us not that a reporter’s pointless question about what his favorite Christmas moment was was stupid, but that he couldn’t answer the question “right now.”
He also told us that the weather change from San Antonio to Toronto isn’t a big deal really, because, “I just wear a jacket. We’re in buildings a lot. We’re not outside playing in the snow. It’s some good scenery.” As media laughed along to what felt like an insult to the reporter’s question, Leonard didn’t. Because it wasn’t an insult. It was Leonard explaining why he wasn’t cold.
We’ve all seen his hilarious laugh, which was preceded by his statement telling everyone that he’s a “fun guy.” A part we overlooked, though, is Leonard tried incredibly hard to answer a reporter’s vague question. The reporter had asked what Leonard would like people to know about him.
After he struggled for a bit, Leonard said, “There’s more questions you’re going to have to ask me to tell you about myself,” as if to say he was open to answering the question further if the reporter wanted to be more specific. That’s just … delightful. He’s the furthest from condescending even when he has the right to be.
This is why we’ll forever love Leonard. He is who he is without any influences. His talent is so great we can hardly critique it. His postgame talks are so heartwarming, we can only egg on reporters to try and get him to laugh or smile, because he won’t say anything controversial. And when we finally get the very basic facial response we’re looking for, it becomes a moment for him.
Leonard, meanwhile, is inviting adoration in his typical way: by not saying much of anything. This quote, from after Game 4 against the Sixers, has probably been his spiciest comment this postseason, which is saying a lot:
His banal brand suffices because the novelty of having him back in the playoffs, and his reminding us all why we said he was the next great thing a few years back, is excitement enough. He is scoring 32.3 points per game—38 in the second-round series against the Sixers—and shooting 59 percent from the field, and 50 percent from 3 on six attempts per game. His true shooting percentage is 70 percent, which is a number usually seen by only centers who live near the rim. His most recent highlight came Sunday against Philadelphia, when he pulled up for a 3 with the shot clock expiring and the Raptors up one late in the fourth quarter. Joel Embiid’s outstretched arms may as well have been imitating the prayer-hands emoji rather than contesting. The shot rattled in, and the Raptors would go on to win 101-96.
Lowry has commented publicly and privately that he simply plays his role, that he is the Raptors point guard and that Masai Ujiri is the team’s president of basketball operations. That is the extent of his relationship with Ujiri, Lowry said earlier this season. They’ve both been through a lot — both the ups and downs of Lowry’s seven seasons in Toronto. Mostly ups, with one Conference Finals berth and three semifinals appearances to date. Their bond was strained and there hadn’t been much to discuss, at all, between the two.
Then came this February in the days leading up to the Feb. 7 trade deadline. Lowry and Ujiri had a long-awaited, and possibly overdue formal sit-down for the first time since the DeRozan deal. It was vocal and engaging, impassioned and, according to Lowry, worthwhile. They shared their feelings on what had led up to that moment, placed their thoughts in front of each other and strategized on how to move forward … together.
“It was a well-needed conversation,” Lowry told The Athletic. “It was a very professional conversation and it had to be done. We had to get everything on the table. Listen, ‘Let’s have this conversation, let’s get everything out on the table, and move on.’ And that’s what grown men do. They have conversations, they figure it out, and you move on.
“It wasn’t a ‘Fuck you, fuck you.’ It wasn’t me asking, ‘Hell, you want to trade me?’ At the end of the day, he’s going to make the decisions, right? I’m going to play no matter what it is. It was about making myself the best player that I can possibly be and getting on the same page about what he needs from me to be the best player — and vice versa. Just getting on the same page.”
For Lowry, the conversation served a practical purpose.
“It was all about the now. It was about: How do we make every day work to the best of our abilities? We said: ‘This is what I would like to see done. This is what you should do. This is how we’re going to keep going.’”
As for the now, the right now, Toronto is trying to reach new heights.
Leonard wasn’t solely responsible for Toronto’s win Sunday. Gasol — who’d been held to eight points or fewer in Games 1-3 — was more aggressive and finished with 16 in Game 4. Similarly, Kyle Lowry looked for his shot early and finished with 14 points after having just seven in Game 3. Danny Green was a perfect 8-for-8 from the line. All of these contributions were helpful in light of Pascal Siakam, arguably Toronto’s second-best player, shooting 2-of-10 from the floor while playing through a calf injury, and Serge Ibaka being the only Raptor to score off the bench.
But make no mistake: Kawhi has played as if he were content to do this all by himself if need be. And in many ways, that spectacle is still noteworthy considering how far a cry it is from what Leonard was earlier in his career, before he became a clear-cut franchise player.
During this postseason, just 33 percent of Leonard’s baskets have been assisted, according to NBA Advanced Stats, while the other two-thirds have been self-created. Snapshots over time illustrate how that’s flipped almost entirely, as he’s become more of a 1-on-1 player. During the 2012-13 regular season, for instance, 65 percent of Kawhi’s makes were assisted. That share of assisted baskets dropped to 54 percent during 2014-15, and to just under 48 percent in 2016-17 before dwindling to just a third during these playoffs.
The question to raise here, of course, is whether it’s possible for Leonard to keep this up. He can’t keep shooting 70 percent from midrange when he was a 46-percent shooter from there during the regular season, right?
On some level, the answer to that may depend on whether the Sixers are willing to be more aggressive about forcing the ball out of Leonard’s hands. We’ve written before about what makes Leonard so different from the other stars in the NBA (aside from how mysteriously quiet he seems to be): He does just about everything at an above-average level, while defending and scoring better than almost anyone. But if there’s one area to test, it’s his playmaking, which generally pales in comparison to LeBron James’s or even Kevin Durant’s. (Both contemporaries regularly enjoy 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratios, while Leonard has yet to post such a season.) Leonard, who had five assists and seven turnovers Sunday, has closer to a 1-to-1 ratio this postseason, with 31 assists and 29 turnovers so far.
Going one level deeper, Kawhi was the NBA’s least efficient wing player1 this past regular season when opposing defenses either blitzed or trapped him in pick-and-rolls, with the Raptors scoring just 0.46 points per chance in such situations, according to data from Second Spectrum.
So while Philadelphia hasn’t been able to stop The Terminator-like Kawhi yet, the Sixers at least have something they can try in hopes of slowing him down as the series moves back to Toronto.
Most importantly: Even though the 76ers outscored the Raptors by 17 points with Embiid on the floor, they outscored the Raptors by just two points in the 21 or so minutes Embiid was on the floor against both of Gasol and Ibaka.
“The way Serge was impacting (the game), I wanted him on,” Nick Nurse said after the game. “That’s just the way I could figure out to keep those same guys going, and I think it was a size advantage for us, believe it or not, at some portions of the game. It just felt good.
“I think the biggest thing I felt tonight was the rebounding. It just felt like we were getting pushed around a lot by the glass the last two games. That would happen with our small lineup, they were just throwing it up there and revving their engines and flying to the rim. Tonight we just had more size, that way, and it kind of looked like the rebounds were affected by that.”
Ibaka had 12 points, outscoring the 76ers bench after games of the Raptors’ reserves providing next to nothing, but it was hardly an offensive clinic. Ibaka took a pair of 3-pointers, hitting the rim on neither. Embiid, apparently dealing with an illness, denied him twice at the rim. It would have been nice if he could have connect in either of those areas, particularly from deep, where the Raptors are shooting a borderline incomprehensible 31.4 percent on wide-open looks in the series.
Ibaka, however, is not scared, and that is no small thing in a series in which the normally beyond-confident Fred VanVleet looks legitimately shaken. When he grabbed offensive rebounds, he did not hesitate to put another shot up, something that has plagued Gasol. When Leonard was busy taking over the game, he found Ibaka for a clean look on the baseline. Ibaka calmly canned it, despite not being a big part of the offence, and certainly not being in rhythm in what became an increasingly one-dimensional offence as the game progressed.
“It’s opportunity to go out there and play, play your game, be able to make a couple mistakes but not think about it and go on to the next one,” Norman Powell said. “I think Serge got a great opportunity to do that with Pascal being hurt a little bit. Serge is a big-time player. People get lost in the game-by-game stats of this one or stats of that one. ‘Oh, he’s not good.’ No, it’s all situational.”
Leonard is rewriting the limits of high-volume offensive efficiency: His post-season true shooting percentage, which combines the value of all field goals plus free throws, is .704, the highest ever for a player averaging at least 25 points per game in a single playoff season. Philadelphia blitzes him with elite athletes, terrific defenders, the occasional seven-foot-two shot destroyer, and Leonard just keeps coming.
And the Raptors need every shot, because they’re not making enough of the other ones. Of the eight teams left in the playoffs, only Milwaukee is generating more wide-open looks than the Raptors, which is good. Among those eight teams, Toronto ranks eighth in wide-open field-goal percentage and seventh on wide-open threes, which is not. They’re eighth among those teams in making simply open shots, too, while generating a higher percentage of such shots than everyone but Boston and Golden State.
Those numbers are, like the team, skewed by Kawhi. On wide open shots he is shooting, uh, 90.5 per cent — 85.7 per cent on twos, and 92.9 per cent on threes. He’s also a big reason the Raptors lead playoff teams in shooting with a defender draped over you like a cloak, or as NBA.com puts it, very tight.
He is human. He just doesn’t play like the other ones.
So why aren’t the Raptors canning the shots they’re getting? All series long, 76ers coach Brett Brown has noted Toronto’s elite shooting since adding Marc Gasol’s unselfishness at the trade deadline.
“We’ve been sprinkling in a fair amount of traps (on Leonard),” Brown said. “I think that a steady diet of anything with such a great player is completely dangerous because (it could open up other chances). They have the best — not the second-best, or third — they have the best three-point shooting team in the league since Marc Gasol came into the team, so there’s punishment.”
Kate Beirness and Josh Lewenberg discuss how Kawhi Leonard is letting his play do the talking and Nick Nurse’s limited use of the bench in Game 4.
t’s sucked up the long-time Raptor confidence demons and spit them out in a new, insidious form. Instead of being a team that secretly knew it didn’t have enough star power to compete, Toronto had become a team that secretly believed it didn’t have enough complimentary pieces to compete.
It’s an incredibly stupid idea. A team whose “complimentary pieces” include an NBA Defensive Player of the Year, a five-time All-Star, one of the best shooters in the modern game, and a seasoned rangy big, might not be good enough?
Yet that was the chatter around Toronto’s bars and gyms. It looked like the message had wormed it’s way into the Raptor’s minds too. It was like Toronto’s players had somehow become so ensorcelled by the upside of Leonard and Siakam they had forgotten how much they all had themselves.
With Siakam unable to contribute at his usual high level, the Raptors veterans seemingly remembered their resumes and refused to be out-worked. It was an ugly game, the latest in what seems to be a never ending series of rock-fights the Raptors find themselves in the post-season, but it was a game won because all of Toronto’s players played with force.
I give a lot of the credit to Serge Ibaka. At his best, Ibaka plays with an arrogant confidence. Perhaps because, aside from Leonard and Green, he’s the only Raptor who has played on teams that legitimately could have been NBA champions (2012 and 2016 Thunder). Regardless, Ibaka played with a quiet confidence, and a chip on his shoulder.
Lowry, by getting himself into the game right off the jump, was able to balance looking for his and getting other’s theirs for the whole game. Gasol simply played like you’d think a versatile seven-footer should. And, for one game, at least, the Raptors were able to avoid giving any minutes to an increasingly shaky bench.
On that point, I understand why Nick Nurse didn’t do it, but I would have been curious to see what Norman Powell could have done with more run. For all his flaws, Powell has shown that he can feed off the kind of energy the Raptors brought yesterday afternoon. It’d be a huge boost for Toronto in Game 5 if Powell could come off the bench and intelligently hunt his shot.
“I think we’re shortening the rotation because we’re trying to keep bigger bodies, get bigger length because of how they’ve been out-rebounding us the last couple of games.”
Nurse isn’t sure if that will continue (he said the reserves are “champing at the big to make a bigger impact”), but it might. And while we are talking about by any means necessary, here’s a novel idea: What about starting Gasol and Ibaka and giving Siakam an initial chance to get VanVleet going? It was only a year ago that they were the major contributors to the NBA’s premier reserve unit? Plus Ibaka has been at his best all year alongside Lowry and the Gasol-Ibaka combo was excellent in Game 4, neutralizing some of Philadelphia’s earlier strengths.
Even with Siakam at less than 100%, that might be too brazen of a change, but anything is possible at this stage. Whatever it takes.
“This is a grind. These things are grinders and being even-keeled, professional, hard-working, tough mentality is what it needs on each game and each possession, really, on both ends,” Nurse said.
“We’ve given up home court in both series now,” Green said.
“If we give it up that early in the series, we’ve got to be able to protect it now this late in the series. So if we want to get out of this and get onto the next round … it’s very important that we show up and protect home court.”
The bigger difference between Toronto’s two wins and Philadelphia’s two wins has been on the Toronto end of the floor, where he Raptors have scored 109.4 points per 100 possessions in Games 1 and 4, and just 96.8 in Games 2 and 3.
But one number stands out in regard to the Sixers’ offense in wins vs. losses. In their two wins, they’ve shot 45-for-77 (58 percent) in the paint. In their two losses, they’ve shot 37-for-79 (47 percent) in the paint.
“We have to own some of it,” Brown said Monday of his team’s inability to finish in Game 4. “You give credit to Toronto’s length and their attention to that area.”
Indeed, the Raptors played bigger in Game 4 and Serge Ibaka blocked three shots inside. In the regular season, Philly ranked fifth in field goal percentage in the paint (57.4 percent), but 17th in effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint (49.3 percent). So defending the former seems like a good priority for Toronto.
Of course, if the Raptors are going to collapse in the paint and focus on contesting shots inside, the Sixers will get open looks on the perimeter. They made 12 threes on Sunday, but Tobias Harris (2-for-13) and Mike Scott (0-for-3) were a combined 2-for-16 from beyond the arc.
Over the four games, Harris (7-for-22) has attempted more catch-and-shoot 3s than J.J. Redick (9-for-20), which is probably a good thing for the Raptors. Right after Kawhi Leonard hit the biggest shot of the series on Sunday, Harris missed a wide-open corner 3 when the Toronto defense collapsed on a Joel Embiid roll to the rim.
If Harris made that shot, it’s back to a one-point game with about 40 seconds left. Alas, he missed and the Raptors made enough free throws to seal the game and even the series.
The Raptors are the second-worst remaining team in the NBA’s post-season at 33.7 per cent from deep. The worst? Philly, at a virtually identical 33.6 per cent.
Nick Nurse likes the looks his team is getting but wants his team’s shooters to recognize their role and stop hesitating.
“We weren’t ready to pull the trigger enough,” he said. “I think we did a better job of that last night [but] you’ve got to take shots when they’re there. They’re sending bodies all over the place and we swung out to guys that we want shooting those shots, who have been shooting them all year. They’ve got to take them.”
The Raptors’ lacklustre shooting and the increasing unreliability of VanVleet and Co., we’ve already seen some major changes. In Game 4, with VanVleet on the bench, Nurse elected to play both of his centres, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, together for long stretches.
It helps the Raptors on the glass, where they’ve been out-rebounded by Philadelphia, but Nurse likes that he can, on paper, play the duo without sacrificing much in the way of shooting.
“I think the good thing is that both those two bigs can pull the trigger,” he said, adding that “they’re going to get their opportunities to.” Nurse added that Joel Embiid’s presence as a shot-blocker around the rim defence helps lead to kick-out opportunities for open looks — a “safety valve outlet,” as he put it.
But, again, the coach stressed that his shooters must be willing to actually shoot.
“Those guys have got to take them. Marc stepped in and made a couple. Serge has, historically, made those,” he said. “They’re going to have four or five opportunities apiece to shoot it tomorrow night.”
As far as minutes are concerned, don’t expect much to change as Nurse continues to lean on his starters. Leonard and Lowry are both averaging 40 minutes of action, while Green has seen his minutes climb to 34.5 per game.
The case for Kawhi Leonard
If it doesn’t look like Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard is breaking a sweat, it’s only because he’s making it look so easy to score against Philadelphia.
“That’s not fair to the Sixers. I’m definitely breaking a sweat,” Leonard said after a 39-point, 14-rebound, five-assist performance in Toronto’s 101-96 victory against Philadelphia in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series Sunday.
In the series, which is tied at 2, Leonard is averaging 38 points, nine rebounds and four assists and is shooting 61.8 percent from the field and 46.4 percent on three-pointers and has scored at least 30 points in all four games.
Where would the Raptors be without Leonard? Well, the Raptors would probably be down 3-1, if not already swept, against the Sixers.
As single-handed as it gets in a team game, Leonard is keeping the Raptors in the series and giving them a chance to advance.
Not only is he the best player on the court, he might be the best player in the playoffs regardless of conference. Better than Durant. Better than Antetokounmpo.
His six games with at least 30 points this postseason are the most by a Raptor in franchise history, and he is the fifth player in NBA history to generate 150 points, 30 rebounds and 15 assists in the first four games of a series, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The other four: Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Rick Barry, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.
Leonard, who is also an elite defender, is second in playoff scoring through both rounds at 32.3 points per game, 3.3 shy of Durant’s average. But Leonard is also taking two fewer shots per game and shooting 7.2 percentage points better from the field (58.7 percent to 51.5 percent) and 6.2 percentage points better on three-pointers (50 percent to 43.8 percent).
Leonard also averages more rebounds (7.7 to 5) and trails in assists to Durant (5 to 3.4). Leonard is also playing three fewer minutes.
Leonard’s effective shooting percentage (which gives added weight to made three-pointers) is 66.2 percent to Durant’s 58.6 percent, and Leonard’s true shooting percentage (which accounts for all made shots including free throws) is 70.4 percent to Durant’s 66.6 percent.
Leonard has three double-doubles and of the 16 quarters he has played against Philadelphia, he has scored at least eight points in 14 quarters.
And let’s be frank: Durant is on the better team surrounded by more talent. The Sixers are doing everything they can to stop Leonard, and Leonard is still getting his points.
I’ve asked a lot of people: What do you want in the future, the question being so important because of your free-agent status? What do you want?
I hear money is very important to you and the Raptors can give you more of it than any other NBA team under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement. More money and more years.
I understand winning is more than significant to you. And why not? You grew up winning in San Antonio. You had a winning season here. Who knows how long this playoff run will go?
You could make this one-and-done — that’s what most people think. But where else can you be guaranteed this kind of team in the future?
You could pull a Durant and go to Golden State, but then you’re no longer the feature player on the team. The Lakers are an internal mess. The Clippers have talked about winning for years, but haven’t really gotten there, even though they’ve been not-so-unofficially chasing you all season.
Look, man. I think the Toronto Raptors are still outright failing at lots of fairly basic manufacturing-a-series-win-type shit. They still have no plan, for example, for creating a steady diet of reasonably high-percentage shots. Or for attacking J.J. Redick, Philadelphia’s best shooter and most vulnerable defender as well as Joel Embiid’s most effective on-court pairing. Or for consistently running Tobias Harris off the three-point line, which is a different thing from just hoping he misses lots of wide-open three-pointers. They’re failing at all that stuff!
And yet, the Raptors beat the 76ers 101-96 yesterday in Philadelphia; their series is now tied at two games apiece, and the Raptors need only win two home games to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. Partly that is because Embiid appears to have earth’s most volatile human body: When his knee is not melting, he is pooping his organs out and requiring medical treatment to stuff them back in. Feeling good and well, he single-handedly destroyed the Raptors in Game 3; yesterday, after a sleepless night and a morning of IV hydration, he put up a perfectly fine 11*-8-7-2-2 line that wouldn’t look all that out of place in a box score next to Thomas Bryant’s name. The gap between those two performances amounts to the open door the Raptors entered in Game 4. But it took a superheroic Kawhi Leonard performance to lug their asses through it.
The Sixers just need to do better when Embiid sits, and Greg Monroe appears not to be the long-term answer to that. While one-game plus/minus is a flawed stat, it’s worth noting the Sixers were +17 in Embiid’s 35+ minutes, but in the 12.8 minutes he sat they were -22.
Jimmy Butler had 29 points on 18 shots to lead Philadelphia.
The Sixers have tried to make it hard on Leonard — look at that dagger shot above, it’s a step-back three over Embiid’s outstretched arm, how many guys in the league could hit that? — it just hasn’t mattered. Leonard has been brilliant, and when he gets a little help the Raptors are the deeper team in this series, and it shows.
Leonard and these Raptors felt like they were changing the movie ending on Sunday. If they can do it again Tuesday we will all start to buy in.
Yes, More of That Defense, Please
While we mostly focused on the offensive side of the ball in Game 3 — mainly that Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol needed to score more and help Kawhi Leonard out — it was the Raptors’ defense that really abandoned them. 116 was the most points they’d given up and 51% the highest opponent field-goal percentage they’d allowed in a game this postseason.
So it was great to see the defense from the first round, and Games 1 and 2, return yesterday. The offense was better too — Lowry and Gasol both scored more, and overall the team shot 35-for-76, and 10-for-31 from three, compared to 35-for-83, and 7-for-27, in Game 3 — but those numbers aren’t exactly world-beating. The D made a huge difference; seeing the Raptors get to their spots, draw charges, get their hands on loose balls and recover well on shooters — basically, all the things they didn’t do in Game 3 — was great. Redick and Butler hit some tough shots. Embiid, under the weather, barely made an impact on offense. Ben Simmons couldn’t get anything going. Tobias Harris led the team in field goal attempts, including 13 three-pointers, and if I’m Toronto, I’m more than OK with that.
Kawhi Leonard has done it again. After putting up 37- and 35-point games in the first round against the Magic, then 45-, 35-, and 33-point outings in the first three games against the 76ers, Leonard erupted yet again for 39 points in a must-win Game 4 victory in Philadelphia.
Leonard’s 39-point performance gave him six 30-point games in the playoffs — the most ever by a Toronto player in a single postseason. (DeMar DeRozan, Vince Carter, Chris Bosh — WTA?) It also made Leonard the fifth player in NBA history to record at least 150 points, 30 rebounds and 15 assists through the first four games of a playoff series.
The other four players: Michael Jordan, Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain. That’s halfway decent company by any measure.
But what sets Leonard apart from the pack is the remarkable efficiency he’s competed with in the playoffs. Toronto’s all-star is averaging 31.5 points on legendary efficiency: 58 percent from the field, 47 percent from three, and 90 percent from the foul line. The only other players in NBA history to have 50-40-90 club numbers in the playoffs are Kevin Durant, who was the most efficient scorer in NBA Finals history last season, Reggie Miller in 1993, and Rolando Blackman in 1985.
But Durant is able to have such numbers in part because he plays alongside three other all-stars, including one two-time league MVP. Leonard has no such luxuries.
The Raptors had an impressive regular-season record in games he did not play, but in the playoffs Leonard is everything. In four games against Philadelphia, the Raptors outscored the Sixers by 26 in minutes he played, but were outscored by 34 in a fraction of the time when he was on the bench.