TORONTO – Only 15 seconds into Friday’s game between Boston and Toronto, Kawhi Leonard and those enormously large hands of his had a steal.
By halftime, he was trending towards a double-double with nine points and five rebounds, a reminder to us all why he’s widely considered the best two-way player in the NBA.
And the performance he put on against the Boston Celtics only confirmed his status as he led the Raptors to a 113-101 victory over the Celtics (1-1) which was Toronto's seventh straight home win over Boston, and 11th in their last 12 meetings.
Leonard finished with a game-high 31 points and 10 rebounds for his second double-double in as many games this season with Toronto (2-0).
“Just went out and tried to lead by example,” Leonard said. “Coach (Nick) Nurse and Kyle (Lowry) did a great job of calling some plays and giving me the ball when in rhythm, and (I) made shots.”
Said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens: “He is a great player, and he is a great two-way player. He certainly looks really good.”
Boston’s Kyrie Irving also had high praise for the two-time All-Star.
“He’s just a special talent,” said Irving who led the Celtics with 21 points.
Which is why so much of the Toronto offense went through Leonard who forced Boston to try and double-team him at times which had mixed results.
Marcus Morris, one of several Celtics tasked with defending Leonard, is quick to acknowledge how talented a player Leonard is.
But he also recognizes a lot of Toronto’s offense flowed through him, making it all the more likely for him to put up big, eye-popping numbers.
“That’s the biggest thing; he’s getting the ball every other play,” said Morris, referring to Leonard’s 10-for-25 shooting night which was 11 shot attempts more than the nearest teammate. “He’s a good player, been a good player; not taking nothing away from him. But he getting the ball every play? You gonna get 30. That’s how I feel.”
But what Leonard did was more than just score a bunch of points.
He dissected the Celtics defense in every way imaginable, whether it was beating someone off the dribble for a score, drawing a foul, or draining a 3-pointer.
Leonard had almost as many free throw attempts (nine) as the entire Celtics team (10), in large part because of the mismatches the Raptors were able to create for him via pick-and-roll switches or just initiating the offense quickly when he was being guarded by a Boston player who was at a clear disadvantage.
“Anytime he goes through you to try and score I don’t think you are doing anything wrong coverage-wise,” Stevens said. “I think when he gets to the rim uncontested or you are fouling him, then I think we have to do a little bit better. He’s going to create some of that stuff.”
And when he does, it makes an already tough Toronto team all that more difficult to beat.
His arrival has not only bolstered the Raptors roster, but also meant four-time All-Star Kyle Lowry has to adjust to having a different running mate.
“The transition has been fine; I’m a true professional,” Lowry told NBC Sports Boston. “At the end of the day, I have two good teammates coming in (Leonard and Danny Green). They’ve got championships. With that kind of pedigree coming in, you accept it … they got what we want. It’s been a smooth transition.”
It certainly looked like it, particularly down the stretch when Toronto closed out the game with a 12-2 run.
“Just some miscommunication on our end as well as some effort plays, including myself,” Irving said. “Just some mistakes down the stretch, that’s all. Turnovers here and there, they got up, Kyle (Lowry) hit a big three and then a step-back. Kawhi (Leonard) had a wide open shot. We had some good looks down the stretch too; just couldn’t capitalize. Just need to be better down the stretch.”
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