Kawhi Leonard glanced down at the stat sheet, searching for assistance as he attempted to explain to a crowded media room how he’d just scored 39 points in the Raptors’ 101-96 Game 4 win Sunday over the Sixers, how he was handling Ben Simmons’ defense, how he kept making contested jumper after contested jumper. A reporter observed that it seemed like he was doing it all without breaking a sweat.
“I think that’s not fair to the Sixers,” he said. "I’m definitely breaking a sweat out there. They’re making me take these shots. I don’t know how to describe my game. That’s for you guys to do. I’m living in the moment.”
Leonard’s game, if you’d like to use superlatives, has been methodical, measured, ruthless and incredibly efficient.
If you’d like to use stats, he’s averaged 38 points per game on 61.8 percent shooting. The most points in a four-game playoff series is 150, by Hakeem Olajuwon in 1988. Leonard has 152 through four games against the Sixers.
If you’d like testimony from the team currently tasked with guarding him, there’s no shortage of praise.
“He’s been doing that for a long time in the league,” Jimmy Butler said. “He’s been doing that every game this series. I don’t know what else we can do.”
“He’s carrying their team,” Tobias Harris said. “All the shots that he’s taking are tough, contested. He’s a heck of a player and he’s making tough shots. We gotta just continue to be physical and show a crowd, and limit his touches, that’s the biggest thing.”
The man Leonard has mainly been tasked with defending, a 6-foot-10 All-Star in Simmons, managed only 10 points and four assists Sunday. His size appeared to bother Leonard here and there as the Raptors’ star turned it over seven times.
“He’s doing a great job,” Leonard said of Simmons. “He’s been aggressive, he’s taking the challenge. Like I said before, it’s not about just me and him on the floor — I’m trying to beat the whole Sixers team. … They’re doing a great job of throwing bodies at me. Turned away the ball a few times tonight.”
But in the second half, the fate of the game was in Leonard’s notoriously large hands. He had 22 points after halftime, including a three-pointer with 1:01 to play and Joel Embiid in his face that put the Raptors up 94-90. Brett Brown called it “Kobe-like.”
With most players, you find yourself questioning how they’ll manage important moments, whether they’ll shrink from the occasion or rise to it. With Leonard, every moment is the same as the one that preceded it.
“Just really growing up and learning from players, watching great players, seeing how they either control the game or just playing at their own speed and not trying to be rushed by a defender,” Leonard said of his temperament. “I was fortunate enough to be on some pretty good teams early [in my career], so I was able to see defenses going on deep playoff runs and try to establish that early. I feel like that probably helped me out to today, now that I’m 27.”
The Sixers’ schemes against Leonard have been varied and sensible. Double teams in the post, a mix of pick-and-roll coverages depending on personnel and situation, and a commitment to swarming him with extra defenders whenever possible.
Could Brown ask Simmons to face guard Leonard for 94 feet? Triple team him in the post? Create some new, exotic strategy to make Leonard’s life a little more difficult? It doesn’t sound likely.
“I think we’ve done a decent job on him,” Brown said. “Might we look to double team him a little bit more? Possibly. But we were able to create — I think he had seven turnovers — and just try to do our best to kind of show him a crowd. But at the end of the day, that's a hell of a playoff game. Thirty-nine points and you really felt all of them.”
From a distance, you can’t see Leonard’s sweat. In fact, you get the impression the Sixers may have felt Leonard's 39 points more than he did — after his three over Embiid, Leonard didn’t say a word.
He pumped his fist, ran back down the court and got ready to play defense.
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