When the Philadelphia 76ers arrived at the arena for Game 1 of this second-round playoff series Saturday morning they expected to get in before 11, but they had to wait. Why? Kawhi Leonard was on the main court, surrounded by almost 20,000 white T-shirts with his face on them, draped over empty seats. Leonard likes to do that on game days: an empty arena, someone to rebound his misses. Quiet. Work.
In this collision between Philadelphia and the Toronto Raptors, it could have been hard to divine the best player in this series. Both teams boast annihilating starting groups, but the higher you go, the more stars need to shine. For Philadelphia, centre Joel Embiid is a planet-smasher who is not always under full control. He could be the best player in this series. He could be the best player in the world.
Leonard, though, is ascending to a different level of predator. At times it felt like he spent his whole season in Toronto training: honing his hyperefficient bullying practice by practice, game by game. It was his first year after serious injury in San Antonio, and even when he was an expressionless force, it felt like he was holding something back.
Well, in the playoffs he has unleashed the full experience. In Game 1 it didn’t matter who was guarding him: Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, even Jimmy Butler. Leonard just pounded away, over and over, and finished with a career playoff-high 45 points on 16-of-23 shooting, 3-for-7 from three, 10-for-11 for the line.
“Incrementally every year, gets more dominant,” said 76ers coach Brett Brown, who was an assistant for a time when Leonard was in San Antonio. “And to look at his skill packages tonight, and the variety of ways that he scored and could get his shot off on some pretty good defensive players, and big athletes, was incredibly impressive.
“When you have Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons, you feel like you have answers to figure out who’s guarding (Pascal) Siakam or Kawhi … If we’re going to win a game, if we’re going to win the series, we have to do better.”
“Personally I thought I did a pretty good job overall,” said Simmons. “But he’s a tough player. He’s Kawhi.”
Meanwhile, Embiid is the member of the Sixers that scares you, even if Marc Gasol guards him as well as anybody. Philadelphia has a surplus of talent, overlapping as it can be. But having Embiid, through his various health questions, changes their game.
“Where do I begin?” said Brown. “Defensively, offensively, (with or without Embiid) it’s just an apple and an orange.”
That’s the Raptors with Kawhi, too, even if Siakam feels like Scottie Pippen to his Michael Jordan right now. In Game 1, it was as if Leonard had worn grooves into the floor and could roll wherever he wanted to go. Pull-up jumpers, turnarounds, cuts and a dunk. It was a drumbeat, unalterable, over and over.
On one play Leonard was bumped hard by J.J. Redick coming off a screen, and within a dribble his balance was again intact, and Kawhi bombed a three. On another play he ran full speed into Simmons, who at six-foot-10, 230 isn’t small, and still hit the off-balance runner as Simmons was sent flying to the baseline. He cooked Butler, crossing over and spinning past him; he drew a triple team and the ball found Siakam for a corner three. The Sixers just couldn’t guard him.
Leonard averaged 27.8 points in the first round against Orlando. At halftime he had 27.
“He’s a spectacular player, and he had a spectacular night, and he hit some spectacular shots,” said Redick. “He’s a superstar. He’s as good as there is in the NBA at generating his own shot, and hitting tough shots.”
Embiid is a superstar too, but you have to peak at the right time. Embiid is listed at 250 pounds, which is aspirational or historical, take your pick: close observers have him closer to 280. He doesn’t practise, missed a game against Brooklyn with his left knee, is constantly questionable, and then plays. He clocked 24.8 points in 24.3 minutes per game in the first round, and Brown said they hope to maintain and improve his fitness base. Don’t we all?
But Embiid went 5-for-18 for 16 points, failing to impose his will, never getting Gasol in foul trouble.
“You’ve got to give credit to Marc Gasol,” said Brown. “He was the defensive player of the year for a reason.”
And Kawhi kept his appointments, and Siakam flowed around the court like water to 29 points, relentlessly finding his level. Remember when Fred VanVleet said the other day that Leonard was back to breaking opponents’ spirits, breaking their will? The Raptors have a superstar, and a near-star, and they carried Game 1. Before the game, Redick said, “We feel like Toronto is as good as anybody in the NBA, and we feel like we can be as good as anybody in the NBA.”
In Game 1, only the first part of the thought applied. There’s time for that to change, but that’s where we stand.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur