- With the Raptors dominating the East, Kawhi Leonard is steadily building his case for MVP. On Wednesday night against the 76ers, he showcased why he deserves to be in the conversation.
The Sixers and Raptors met Wednesday night in Toronto for a game that might have been an Eastern Conference playoff preview. The action was back and forth throughout, but it was sloppy, too. Neither team was hitting on all cylinders. In the end, Wednesday night came down to Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler. The latter finished with 38 points and 10 rebounds on 15-27 shooting. Kawhi finished with 36 and nine, and he got the win.
The difference for Toronto was defense. Leonard had five steals to go with his 36 points and he was wreaking havoc in the passing lanes all night long. The Sixers finished with 21 turnovers, including 11 in the second quarter (when the Raptors turned an eight-point deficit into a four-point halftime lead). Along with the increasingly sensational Pascal Siakam, Kawhi helped make Philly's stars uncomfortable throughout the game. Passes were deflected, ballhandlers were harassed, and the Sixers had no good answers beyond pull-up jumpers from Butler and J.J. Redick. Couple Leonard's defense with his production on offense, and it's games like Wednesday that will eventually help make an MVP case.
Defense has always been what makes Leonard special; it won him a Finals MVP. The crazy thing about watching Kawhi today is that even as he's grown as a player and blossomed into the sort of scorer who can carry an offense by himself, his signature hasn't changed. Other players are called two-way stars if they can play defense; that doesn't mean they will actually dominate that end of the floor for an entire game. I'm thinking of players like Butler, Kevin Durant, Paul George; they turn defense on and off as needed. Kawhi is always there, haunting teams, waiting on a mistake, ready. It's not just hype.
Last Thursday, even as Durant was having an out of body experience to carry the Warriors to overtime, Leonard was in his jersey the entire time. 51 points in, when Durant finally got lazy on a crossover in overtime, Leonard poked the ball away and forced a turnover. Durant never scored again. Toronto pulled away and got the win.
As for Wednesday, if that was a playoff preview, it's hard to say how much we really learned. Joel Embiid was exhausted and uncharacteristically ineffective, while Ben Simmons was invisible. Only one of those problems figures to factor into any playoff series. Kyle Lowry and the Toronto supporting cast got decent looks all night, but outside of Leonard, Raptors were 3-23 from three-point range. That kind of ice cold night won't happen very often during a playoff series. On the other hand, a supporting cast full of role players of aging stars could be a very real concern when it's time to compete at the highest levels of the league. As much as the Raptors have changed, some of the same questions will have to be answered come May.
For now, Kawhi is the story. The rust is gone. Encouraging signs during the first few weeks have given way to collective dread around the East, and possibly some remorse. Do you think Boston would like to revisit the decision to keep Jaylen Brown off the table with the Spurs last summer? Leonard will be in the MVP conversation all year, but that's become obvious over the past week. Between last Thursday and Wednesday vs. Philly, we've gotten two nationally televised reminders that the Raptors are one of the best teams in the league, and Leonard's impact is undeniable. Giannis is currently the MVP front-runner, but it's also early December. We'll see.
The more interesting question is how many minds Kawhi Leonard can really change this season. Because it's all on the table. This Raptors team is very good, and there's a chance to be great. To get there, Kawhi will have to stake his claim as the most complete superstar in the NBA. For several years now, the three best players in the basketball have been Steph Curry, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant. Maybe that discussion will be more interesting by next summer.
Leonard's defense is better than any superstar in basketball, and offensively, he's a machine. He bullies almost anyone teams put in front of him. As I wrote back in October, "Kawhi is never really settling for tough shots. He's just calmly leveraging his size and footwork into open looks, and then rising up to knock them down. The best version of his game is like Kobe Bryant with the DNA of Tim Duncan." Watch a Raptors game and you can't help but come away baffled by just how good he is. You notice the defense, and how clinical he's become on offense, and you begin to wonder about bigger questions.
I don't know whether Kawhi belongs in the conversation with the best players on earth, but watching the Raptors early on this year, I do know this: He's never had a better opportunity to make his case.