“He has to come down eventually, doesn’t he?” That was the whisper in the halls before the game, from all sides. In Game 4, Kawhi Leonard bailed the Raptors out. The Philadelphia 76ers did, too. Every time Toronto needed to make a shot it felt like Kawhi created one, up to the big one at the end. And every time Philly needed a shot, it felt like they missed. Game 4 was an escape from a 3-1 deficit, balanced on impossibly broad shoulders. Imagine the potential consequences had the Raptors lost.
Instead, Toronto had a chance to push the Sixers to the edge of elimination, and in Game 5 they looked like a weight had been lifted. Leonard was finally human, yes. It was jarring. He missed shots, just like a normal person. He fell closer to Earth, or as close to Earth as someone who can dunk over Joel Embiid can come.
And by halftime the Raptors had run Philadelphia out of the building anyway, on the way to a 125-89 win in Game 5. Toronto leads the series three games to two, and Game 6 is Thursday in Philadelphia.
It was over fast. The prancing, dancing, dunking-and-punking Embiid of Game 3 was sick again, and a gigantic sack of flour. Ben Simmons was still being inhaled by Kawhi, when he wasn’t busy at the other end. After a close first quarter, there was suddenly no shot the Sixers couldn’t miss. They were in the zone.
The Raptors, meanwhile, looked like the Raptors again. Not the team that had two double-figure scorers in Game 1, or that couldn’t shoot outside Kawhi in Game 2, or that got trampled with Kawhi on the bench in every game, but especially Game 3.
They didn’t look like the team that watched Kawhi carry them in Game 4, either, with that seismic three over Embiid to seal it. After that game, Toronto centre Marc Gasol said, “I think we are figuring each out a little bit. We’re learning as we go. Being a new team, you have to go through those kind of things to know more about your teammates and your coaches and who you are as a team.”
This was what they’ve been searching for. A Raptors team with Kawhi, a two-legged Pascal Siakam, a fully alive Kyle Lowry, a confident Gasol, Danny Green blazing threes again, and a little bit of bench.
This is what they’re supposed to be. The Sixers also made a move at the deadline and are figuring each other out, but this was the Raptors at full throttle. Toronto outscored Philadelphia 37-17 in the second quarter, with the kind of contributions that propelled this team in the 22 games that Kawhi sat. Toronto went 17-5 in those games. They weren’t Kawhi and a bunch of red-jacketed security guards.
Kawhi had entered the game in singular territory: 38 points per game over the first four on a .618/.464/.829 shooting line for a .728 true shooting percentage, which is simply beyond the stars. Some on the Sixers thought Simmons had performed at an all-NBA level on defence, and was still getting torched.
“I mean, this is my 19th year in the NBA, and I really didn’t see Jordan when Michael was Michael,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown. “I did see Kobe when Kobe was Kobe. And there are hints of that when you are trying to game plan for Kawhi. In that he can create any shot and get it off over two people, and make way more than he doesn’t.
“He just is that offensively gifted, and Kobe was that offensively gifted. And you know, Kawhi has grown to have that laser focus where he just wants that responsibility and the ball. So it becomes tough all over the place.”
Elsewhere, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo was laying waste to the Boston Celtics; Kevin Durant and James Harden were duelling in a tough Golden State-Houston series; Damian Lillard was ending series for Portland on shots from Wyoming; and Denver’s Nikola Jokic was the doughy face of pure Serbian basketball genius.
But nobody had been carrying as heavy a load as Leonard, and Philadelphia sold out some more to stop him. They had wrestled with the balance between overblitzing Leonard and daring his less capable teammates to beat them.
And then he struggled, for him. Easy shots swirled around and popped out, fell short, rattled. He was still a force — he is always a force. But he wasn’t automatic. The Sixers had privately thought Simmons was playing near all-NBA defence on Leonard, and was still getting torched. Kawhi had a tough game, here.
Kawhi still finished with 21 points on 7-for-16 shooting, 12 rebounds, four assists on some of his better passes of the series, two steals, no turnovers, and that dunk over Embiid. But all five Raptors starters scored in double figures for the first time in the series, too. Brown said after Embiid’s Game 3 that when the giant was healthy, he felt he had the best player in the gym.
But Embiid and Philly flopped, and Toronto fans did his airplane celebration as he checked out the last time. One win to the conference final, and likely the Milwaukee juggernaut. But right now, the Raptors have the best player in the series, end to end. And finally, without a doubt, they had the best team.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur