TORONTO — For anyone that’s watched Kawhi Leonard’s ascension into NBA superstardom, a game like Saturday night’s should come as no surprise.
The three-time All-Star was spectacular, pouring in 45 points in the Raptors’ 108-95 win over the Sixers in Game 1 of the second-round series at Scotiabank Arena (see observations).
With that said, there may be a glimmer of hope for the Sixers as they look to slow down Leonard and get the series even Monday night in Toronto.
First, the obvious: Leonard is not going to score 45 points and shoot over 70 percent every night. Not even Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain averaged those kinds of numbers in the postseason.
It was an incredible feat.
“He’s a spectacular player, he had a spectacular night and he hit some spectacular shots,” JJ Redick said. “I said this morning, he’s a superstar. He is as good as there is in the NBA at generating his own shot and then making tough shots. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to him.”
Leonard is one of the best players on the planet and will likely be brilliant in at least one or two more games. This performance was beyond brilliance. This was near perfection. It was a career-best in a playoff game for Leonard and marked just the second time in 93 career playoff games that he’s topped 40 points.
None of this is to knock Leonard. Far from it. It’s just to say that this has the potential to be a long series. Maybe the Sixers are lucky in the sense that Leonard turned in this virtuoso performance in Game 1 as opposed to down the line.
Their warts being exposed against Leonard defensively also gives the Sixers time to figure things out. For instance, after Jimmy Butler started out on him, Ben Simmons seemed to be the most effective against Leonard. Nobody was stopping him, but Simmons managed to affect a couple of shots with his length.
“Personally, I think I did a pretty good job overall [on Leonard],” Simmons said. “But he’s a tough player. I mean, he’s Kawhi. He’s a physical guy, a lot of length, he can shoot the ball, so he’s a tough guy to match up on.”
Brett Brown has said from the onset that he wants to show Leonard different looks throughout the series. Butler wasn’t necessarily bad against Leonard. Leonard made a lot of long, contested twos — a shot you want the opposition to take.
But perhaps in Game 2, Leonard will see more of Simmons from the jump.
“When you have Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons, you feel like you have to answers to figure out who’s guarding [Pascal] Siakam or Kawhi,” Brett Brown said. “We had great success in the Brooklyn series with Ben guarding the point guard with his length. Could we see him more on Kawhi? Maybe. Or maybe some of the others we just got to do a little bit better and give them help with crowds.”
Help defense was something the Sixers got much better with as the Brooklyn series went on. There were several occasions Saturday where there may have been an opportunity to challenge Leonard at the rim, but the help was too slow in rotating over.
Luckily for the Sixers, it’s just one game and they have time to fix it.
But if Leonard repeats this performance, there’s not a whole lot any team can do.
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