Look, man. I think the Toronto Raptors are still outright failing at lots of fairly basic manufacturing-a-series-win-type shit. They still have no plan, for example, for creating a steady diet of reasonably high-percentage shots. Or for attacking J.J. Redick, Philadelphia’s best shooter and most vulnerable defender as well as Joel Embiid’s most effective on-court pairing. Or for consistently running Tobias Harris off the three-point line, which is a different thing from just hoping he misses lots of wide-open three-pointers. They’re failing at all that stuff!
And yet, the Raptors beat the 76ers 101-96 yesterday in Philadelphia; their series is now tied at two games apiece, and the Raptors need only win two home games to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. Partly that is because Embiid appears to have earth’s most volatile human body: When his knee is not melting, he is pooping his organs out and requiring medical treatment to stuff them back in. Feeling good and well, he single-handedly destroyed the Raptors in Game 3; yesterday, after a sleepless night and a morning of IV hydration, he put up a perfectly fine 11*-8-7-2-2 line that wouldn’t look all that out of place in a box score next to Thomas Bryant’s name. The gap between those two performances amounts to the open door the Raptors entered in Game 4. But it took a superheroic Kawhi Leonard performance to lug their asses through it.
I watched the game, and this morning I ate the tape. To credit any of this to some smart adjustment on the part of Raptors coach Nick Nurse or to some holistic breakthrough by the Raptors as a group—yes, okay, they played much better defense in Game 4, sure, shut up—would be an insult to Kawhi Leonard. For a game-high 43 minutes of playing time, he shot an absurd 65 percent on a diet consisting pretty much entirely of tough, improvised, self-created buckets, out of the dull nothing left behind by Toronto’s feeble offensive actions.
He roasted Philly’s Ben Simmons, making 11 of 14 shots and scoring 32 of his 39 points with Simmons as his primary defender, according to the NBA’s stats site. In the second quarter he froze both Simmons and Embiid with a subtle little quarter-turn hesitation dribble and then darted past both of them for an easy dunk:
A few possessions later, he drove into the middle of the lane, deked Embiid—one of the NBA’s cagiest and smartest rim protectors—into the frickin’ rafters, and stepped through for a finger-roll:
I like this silly one, where Kawhi lets a bumblin’ and stumblin’ Simmons cruise past him in transition and then casually splashes a three:
It paid off a bit later, when a simple ball-fake got Simmons to all but leap out of the way and led to a wide-open jump shot for Serge Ibaka:
By crunch time, the Sixers were defending him like he was the only guy on the court in a Toronto uniform, and it didn’t matter:
He gave second and third efforts when the defense stymied his first; he muscled the ball up to the rim through Embiid; he splashed in highly inadvisable fadeaway jumpers over multiple defenders’ outstretched arms. He had the kind of shooting night it would be crazy even to hope for. The impulse is to say that the Raptors won because Kawhi played like Michael Jordan—all those mid-range jumpers, all those tough finishes amid a thicket of defenders under the rim—but frankly that is too nice a thing to say about Michael Jordan.
Look at this shit:
It’s very straightforward! There’s no x-and-o insight to pull out of it! Kawhi Leonard is just really fucking good. He kicked the Sixers’ butts yesterday and it ruled.