Leonard just may be the best player in the world
by Scott Mandel
The Toronto Raptors season has always been about pacing themselves for the playoffs. The Raptors have tasted regular-season success plenty in the past, but it never tastes so great when the seasons always end in the same way: With too-early losses in the playoffs.
That’s why general manager Masai Ujiri made the gutsiest move of the last offseason in trading franchise centerpiece DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for the Spurs‘ disgruntled superstar, Kawhi Leonard. It was risky on many different levels. One was that the Toronto fan base adored DeRozan, and DeRozan adored them back, and you just don’t sever those types of relationships without feeling very uncertain about your decision.
Another reason was that Leonard was coming off a bizarre season lost to injury, a mysterious quad injury where the Spurs often felt left in the dark and out of step with Leonard and his camp. When the Raptors made the trade, they could not be sure if they were sending the beloved DeRozan for a player still capable of being a Finals MVP – or whether they would be getting, in exchange for their franchise player, an ex-superstar who was now damaged goods.
But the risk, Ujiri deemed, was worth it. The DeRozan-led Raptors era felt tapped out as a very good regular season team that wasn’t built for playoff success. A Leonard trade was going for it: Ujiri pushing all of his chips to the center of the table. Perhaps the biggest risk that Ujiri was taking was to trade for a superstar who was in the final year of his contract, and who had made well known his desire to return to Southern California. The Raptors would have one season to capitalize on the talents of Leonard and their impressive surrounding pieces. Succeed there – say, make an NBA Finals – and it would all be worth it, even if Leonard decided to leave in the offseason anyway for SoCal.
Which brings us to Sunday evening in Philadelphia. The Raptors were in a pickle. In Game 1, they dominated at home, with Leonard showing – as he has these entire playoffs – that it might be him, not LeBron James and not Kevin Durant and not Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is the best player in the world. This was close to the best version of the Raptors, even if the contributions from the bench were less than you’d hope.
Now the Raptors were in trouble. Lose this one and they’d be heading back to Toronto having to win out to win the series. In all of NBA history, only 11 teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit in a seven-game series. It can happen – just ask noted Raptors killer LeBron James – but it is not the situation any team wants to find itself in. Especially when the alternative, losing in the second round of the playoffs after planning an entire franchise future around this moment, would likely portend close to a total franchise rebuild. The pressure was on. This felt like the last time Toronto could do anything of note in the postseason for a long, long time. Lose here, and the Raptors were about to take a huge step back as a franchise. Who knows when they’d ever find themselves back at this point.
So what did the Raptors do on Sunday? They stood up to the challenge and were close to that best version of themselves. Even with a visibly struggling Pascal Siakam, who had been listed as doubtful with a calf contusion but gutted it out anyway, the Raptors had their most complete game of the series. Leonard was machine-like in his efficiency. This wasn’t just the same Leonard who was a top-five player in the NBA before his injury-riddled 2017-18 season. This was quite possibly a better Leonard, at least on the offensive end: 39 points on 20 shots, 14 rebounds, 5 of 7 from 3, including the dagger in the final minute. It was another Jordanesque playoff performance from Leonard. But even Michael Jordan needed Scottie Pippen to win championships, and it was the stellar supporting cast that pushed the Raptors past the Sixers. Kyle Lowry was aggressive, and at times he looked like a younger version of himself, a.k.a. an All-Star. Danny Green didn’t shoot much, but he played good defense and got to the free throw line, making all eight of his attempts. Most importantly, Marc Gasol showed why Ujiri made his trade-deadline move to nab him from the Memphis Grizzlies. Gasol played his finest game of the playoffs, playing his typically excellent defense while scoring 16 points and reminding the Sixers they have to respect him as an outside shooter. The Raptors outscored the Sixers by 13 points while Gasol was on the floor, the best plus-minus on the team.
It is here where we should note that one big reason the Raptors were able to steal one on the road was because Embiid was very clearly not himself. He was playing without the aggression he brought to his incredible Game 3 performance, and without the joy, too; Embiid ended up with only 11 points on just seven shots. Head coach Brett Brown offered up an explanation afterward: Embiid had texted him at 6:20 a.m. and said he wasn’t sure he could play. He’d been up all night throwing up and got an IV hydration early in the morning. It was, apparently, a virus, and unrelated to the stomach bug that hampered him in Game 2. Whether it’s a stomach bug or a virus, knee tendinitis or too many milkshakes from the night before, it’s become even more clear during these playoffs that the Sixers need Embiid close to 100 percent in order to fulfill their very large potential.
Still, this should not take away from the Raptors’ complete and dominant performance. They regained home-court advantage after a Game 3 where they looked wholly outclassed. They leaned on their superstar, but they got important contributions from their supporting cast.
In so doing, they extended this era of Raptors history. Maybe the era will end this week, or maybe it’ll go well into June. They played with urgency, but it never felt like desperation. With more performances like that – where their superstar plays like the best player on Earth, and their supporting cast doesn’t turn into a collective pumpkin at the mention of playoff pressure – the Raptors could very well be playing later this season than they ever have.