The Hulk is the strongest superhero. Not because he’s gigantic, with muscles the size of small moons, but because of the way he responds to obstacles in his path. The angrier he gets, the greater the challenge, the stronger he becomes. It could form an infinite loop. The greater the burden and the more frustrated the Hulk becomes, the more power he possesses. Like Atlas, The Hulk could potentially lift the world upon his shoulders.
Kawhi Leonard is Toronto’s Hulk. The more that the Toronto Raptors have asked of him, the more he has given. The stronger the challenge, the stronger has been his vice grip on his opponents’ throats. Leonard was given an impossible task ahead of game three, and he performed with more conviction than could reasonably be expected from any human basketball player. Because of Leonard’s heroics (seemingly the start of at least one sentence in each column written about the Toronto Raptors these days) the Raptors beat the Milwaukee Bucks 118-112 in a double overtime marathon. They now trail the Bucks 1-2 in the series, but Leonard has breathed life back into his team’s hopes. He lifted Toronto’s chances singularly onto his increasingly broad shoulders.
Remember, Leonard has been maybe the most overworked player in the playoffs so far. He has averaged the third-highest usage rate, played the fourth-most minutes, and scored by far the most points. It’s been a change from a regular season dotted with rest days under the guise of load management. Before the game, Nick Nurse spoke about changes from the coaching side. He didn’t mention a different starting lineup, but media in attendance assumed that his vague promises meant the starting lineup would be different. It turned out the biggest alteration would be an increase in Leonard’s workload.
Leonard was tasked with becoming the primary defender of the MVP-frontrunner, all-consuming Giannis Antetokounmpo, for the first time this series. If Leonard is the Hulk, Antetokounmpo is a trickster, Loki, impossibly present in all dimensions, seemingly time-traveling across the court with the inevitable length of his strides and arms. Leonard was up to the task of denying him.
“First of all, [Leonard’s] defense was the biggest key of the game,” said Nurse after the game.
Leonard swallowed Antetokounmpo whole, laying off of him to help in the paint when Antetokounmpo didn’t have the ball and aggressively meeting him on the drive. Antetokounmpo’s stat-line describes his game well. He finished with 12 points on 5-for-16 shooting, 23 rebounds, 7 assists, and 8 turnovers. He found ways to contribute, especially on the glass and passing the ball, but he wasn’t the unique force that he has been all season. Against Leonard, he looked more like the awkward colt of his early years than the race horse that he’s become this season.
With Leonard on Antetokounmpo, the Bucks changed their offensive identity early in the game. Rather than flying into their drive-and-kick wheel of death, they tried to play the matchup game. The Bucks would try to run screens for Antetokounmpo to force a switch from the Raptors. It worked, and the Raptors happily switched, but the maneuver took the Bucks out of their game. It slowed their attack, used up precious seconds on the shot-clock, and let Toronto set up their gauntlet of helps, doubles, and traps. Credit to those helpers, as Gasol, Green, Siakam, and others were brilliant doubling Antetokounmpo and offering Leonard the help he needed. The Raptors took an early 18-7 lead as the Bucks struggled to adjust to the defensive changes. Leonard seemed to hurt himself early in the game, and he hobbled around for much of his 52 minutes played. But the greater the challenge, the stronger Leonard became.
The Raptors actually maintained a lead for the majority of the game. They led 58-51 at halftime, despite the Bucks finally beginning to connect from deep, shooting 10-of-21. The Raptors cleaned up their defensive rebounding, and the Bucks didn’t have any room to improve from behind the arc. Even though the Raptors have led before in the series, this lead felt more sustainable, less likely to crumble at the first sign of an onslaught.
Indeed, it took some shenanigans for the Raptors to lose their lead in the fourth quarter. Fred VanVleet was about as poor on the offensive end as I’ve seen him, shooting 1-for-5 and committing a pair of turnovers. Either he drove into thickets at the rim, or he was too passive. He will need to figure out his offensive game. To add to the chaos, Kyle Lowry fouled out after offering Toronto stability and energy all game. Pascal Siakam missed a pair of potentially game-sealing free throws.
“At the end of the game, Kawhi said that he played an hour of basketball,” said Siakam. “I told him, ‘my bad.’”
And so the Raptors back-pedalled into overtime, and then a second extra frame. Missing Lowry, and then an also-fouled-out Norm Powell, the Raptors seemed not to be equipped for extra basketball. But the stronger the obstacle, the stronger the Leonard. On an early Milwaukee possession, Leonard bodied an Antetokounmpo drive and forced a jump-ball, which he won over the taller man. Later, he put the Raptors ahead by four with a trademark stepback jumper. He unfurled his length for a fingertip steal on an errant Eric Bledsoe pass on the next possession.
Yet the Raptors again let the Bucks back into the game. No problem. Antetokounmpo fouled out early, and Leonard put the game away. He broke free in transition for two dunks in the second overtime, the second coming after Leonard stole the ball twice in one possession from Bucks’ ball-handlers. With the Raps up two, Leonard sealed the game with a spinning layup and then a pair of free throws.
“He made some huge plays with some steals and rip-aways and breakaways,” said Nurse. “Offense was hard to come by there for both teams for a while, and any time you can get a steal and a breakout, it’s a huge momentum play.”
All in all, Leonard finished with 36 points, 8 coming in the second overtime. He snatched 9 rebounds, dished 5 assists, and tallied 2 steals and a block. More importantly than his statistics, he far outplayed Antetokounmpo. On top of limiting Antetokounmpo from scoring, and forcing a variety of turnovers, Leonard also held Antetokounmpo to only seven attempted free throws.
“As far as getting to the free throw line, [Antetokounmpo] may have to play with more force,” said Mike Budenholzer after the game.
That makes intuitive sense, that the Bucks will have to meet or surpass Leonard’s level of force. But it might play directly into the Raptors’ claws. The more force the Hulk faces, the more strength he can summon. And so too has it been for Leonard during this historic playoff run. There has not yet been an identifiable limit to the responsibilities he can shoulder. Such is the power of a superhero.