PHILADELPHIA—At some point, there was a sound. Sometimes when a spectacular superstar comes through town in the regular season — a Kevin Durant, or Steph Curry, or in the old days, Kobe Bryant — the home crowd can be won over, and they just start cheering. The playoffs are different. It matters too much.
So at some point in a tight, tense, bruising Game 4 between the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers, Leonard would start his shooting motion and the entire building would … groan? Moan? It was a sound of dread, a gasping oh no from 20,000 voices. That, sometimes, is the other way a superstar can win the crowd.
“That’s Kawhi, man,” Raptors forward Serge Ibaka said after Leonard’s 39-point, 14-rebound, five-assist, 13-for-20 masterpiece in Toronto’s 101-96 win in Game 4, which evened the second-round series. “You know, that’s what he does for a living. We all know that. It’s not a surprise.”
“He’s done it every game of this series,” Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler said. “I don’t know what else you can do.”
He has done it every game: a ruthless drumbeat, night after night. Leonard had 45 points on 16-of-23 shooting in Game 1; 35 on 13-of-24 shooting in Game 2; 33 on 13-of-22 shooting in Game 3.
On a night where Pascal Siakam played through a contused calf and couldn’t make anything that wasn’t a dunk, Lowry and Gasol delivered enough offence. Serge Ibaka, too. Leonard only had eight of Toronto’s 26 fourth-quarter points; only six Raptors scored at all. They needed everything.
And midway through the fourth quarter the Raptors had already clawed back from three or four moments when the Sixers were pushing, and the crowd was ready to explode. Kawhi had missed two of his three free throws, committed a pair of turnovers, delivered big open shots to Gasol and Ibaka. The game was in the balance. He had stumbled, just a bit.
Kawhi hit a pull-up jumper, up four. Missed one from the same spot. Drew and hit a pair of free throws. Toronto was up one point with just over a minute left, and Leonard had the ball, and the shot clock was running out. The place was thundering. De-fence! De-fence!
And Leonard drove to his right around a Gasol screen, glanced at the clock, glanced at Embiid — who was sick again, and only impactful defensively, but is still seven feet of Embiid — and launched a balanced, fading, in-rhythm three that splashed. The crowd shrieked, then fell silent. That was the game. Very few people take that shot. A bare few make it. He is averaging a preposterous 38 points while making a preposterous 62 per cent of his shots in the series.
“I just took a shot and believed it would go in, and it did,” said Leonard, in his gravel monotone. He talked about similar shots through the season that he left short, like one against Houston, so he told himself, get it high, to the back rim. Simple. Like math.
“It’s Kobe,” Raptors guard Norm Powell said. “That man is Kobe. He’s a superstar, man. He gets after it. He doesn’t care who’s in front of him, he knows what he’s worth, he knows what he can do … superstars in the league, Kevin Durant, James Harden, he’s up with those guys.”
Asked what he thought as the ball went up, Powell said again, “Kobe. It’s good. That’s what I was saying after he made that. Even when he went up, side-step fadeaway, nothing but net, that’s Kobe right there. He was confident in it. You don’t see him rushed, you see him look up at the clock before it, he created space, he let it fly.”
“I mean, he’s not worried, man. He’s really calm, he’s really patient, he doesn’t get sped up. Even when he had a late turnover where he dribbled off his foot … you see guys holding their head, get upset a little bit. But he’s going to come right back at you.”
“He’s punishing, for sure,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “You know, the stuff that he can get off, and we had two people out there (on the three), the stuff that he can do to create his own shot is Kobe-like, for me.
“To your question about who can guard him, funny enough, with our wings, I think we’ve done a decent job on him … at the end of the day, that’s a hell of a playoff game. 39 points, and you really felt all of them.”
Kobe-like. Except Kobe Bryant played 220 playoff games, and he never had a 45-point game on at least 69 per cent shooting, as Kawhi did in Game 1, and he had one where he had at least 39 on at least 65 per cent shooting, which Kawhi just delivered. As much as anything, Kobe is fetishized by NBA players for his cold-blooded refusal to bow to or even consider failure. Well, Leonard is just so unafraid. He was asked if he was breaking a sweat out there.
“That’s not fair to the Sixers,” he said. “I’m definitely breaking a sweat out there. They’re making me take tough shots. I’m not describing my game; I’m just trying to win. That’s for you guys to do. I’m living in the moment.”
He is one of the best players on the planet, and this game showed that if Toronto just give him a little help, with shared purpose and force, and if Philadelphia misses shots — this was Philly’s version of Toronto’s Game 2 — then they can create a hell of a sound, alone, or together.