Let’s be honest.
Kawhi Leonard had a litany of memorable playoff moments for the Toronto Raptors last season.
Ranking Kawhi’s best games during the Raptors championship run is challenging. The superstar made an impact whenever he was on the floor.
One cannot describe Leonard’s Raptors legacy without talking about “The Shot” in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers at the buzzer. Or the dunk in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals over Milwaukee Bucks star big man Giannis Antetokounmpo.
There is one collective performance that rises from the rest. Game 4 against the Sixers was Leonard’s best playoff game as a Raptor, given the context leading up to the contest and the shots that propelled the Raptors to a 101-96 victory.
“Tonight we all kind of stepped up a little bit more,” Lowry said after the game. “We’ve got to take the shots that are there, they’re a swarming team and when they swarm we’ve got to make them play, and we made some big shots tonight.”
Coming into Game 4, the Raptors were down 2-1 in the series to the Sixers. The Sixers dominated the Raptors in Game 3 on both ends of the floor.
Toronto was reeling.
Their defense had trouble stopping Sixers big man Joel Embiid, who put up a double-double 33 points and 11 rebounds in Game 3.
All five of the Sixers starters had double-digit points and shot 51.2 percent from the field.
The Raptors were held to 42.2 percent from the field and just 25.9 percent from three. Their bench, known to supply timely scoring, only put up a combined 11 points.
Toronto could not afford to go down 3-1 in the series. It requires the Raptors to win an elimination game at home before coming back to Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for a do-or-die Game 6.
Just to force a win-or-go-home Game 7 back in Toronto. A very tall order.
Despite two consecutive losses, Kawhi remained the Raptors’ constant source of production on both ends of the floor. With Raptors head coach Nick Nurse going with a six-man rotation for Game 4, the team leaned on Leonard to carry it to victory.
Look no further than Kawhi’s 39-point, 11 rebound stat line to illustrate his impact on the game. He made an effort to drive to the basket against the Sixers’ length and size. On defense, the Raptors small forward used his hustle and quick hands to grab loose balls for defensive rebounds.
Kawhi Leonard did it ALL as the @Raptors WIN Game 4 and tie up the series (2-2)!
— NBA Canada (@NBACanada) March 29, 2020
When the Sixers built a six-point lead in the second half, Leonard was critical in bringing the Raptors back in the game. A notable example was at 7:09 remaining in the game, where Kawhi drew the defense inside before kicking the ball out to Marc Gasol, who drained the three.
This marriage of playmaking and scoring is a part of the fabric that makes Leonard so special in these big game situations.
“The stuff that he can do to create his shot is Kobe-like for me,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “He’s just so gifted. . . he’s a hell of a player, 39 points and you felt all of them.”
Leonard’s signature moment came with one-minute remaining. With the Raptors up 91-90, Kawhi dribbled from the far end of the court to the near side. Embiid, slow to switch on Kawhi, watched as the Raptors superstar drained a clutch 26-foot three-pointer.
The shot sealed the win for the Raptors. It meant a lot to Leonard, as he ran back on defense, letting out a brief glimpse of competitive emotion.
“There were times in the past, playing in the regular season, I had times when I took those shots and they came up short,” Leonard said. “So I guess I was thinking as well at the time to make sure I put it up high and get to the back rim, and that’s what I did … So just remembering moments like that, and practicing, and telling myself, ‘Try and get it to the back rim.’”
Leonard’s epic playoff moments that followed after Game 4 carried with them higher stakes.
But for a Raptors franchise still searching for a championship identity, Leonard’s performance supplanted the team with confidence going forward.
It was a Kawhi masterpiece, etching him into the annals of Raptors history.