TORONTO—On Saturday morning at shootaround J.J. Redick was asked about Kawhi Leonard in the Sixers' second-round matchup, and Redick said the problems he creates go beyond one series. "Kawhi," he said, "in any matchup, is pretty good. He's gonna put up his numbers. You try to make it tough on him. We'll have strategies and adjustments as the series goes on. But he's a superstar. He's one of the best players in the NBA." Roughly 11 hours later, after Kawhi put up a career-high 45 points to help the Raptors take Game 1, Redick was forced to repeat himself.
"He's a spectacular player," Redick said. "He had a spectacular night, and he hit some spectacular shots. He's a superstar."
It's been a complicated two years for Kawhi, but Game 1 against the Sixers was a reminder of what he can do, and just how spectacular he really is. The rest of the NBA has long understood that he's one of the best players in the league, but he’s actually even better than that distinction. “One of the best” can be applied to 15 or 20 guys throughout the sport. Paul George, Klay Thompson, Ben Simmons, Blake Griffin—all of these players fit under that umbrella. We could narrow the category by talking strictly about superstars, but even then, that category includes players like Joel Embiid, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving.
Kawhi at his best is better than any of them. With LeBron James watching from home, Leonard's in a group of five players—along with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant—who have the chance to own these playoffs and enter the summer looking like the best player on earth. It's a subplot that could be every bit as entertaining as the title race itself, and it feels appropriate that after Durant finished the Clippers off with 50 points at Staples Center on Friday night, Kawhi came back with 45 of his own.
He's been delivering for the Raptors all year long, but not like this. After Toronto's Game 1 loss to the Magic in the first round, Leonard came back with 37 points on 15-of-22 shooting in Game 2. Five days later he added 34 points, six rebounds, two blocks, and two steals on 12-of-20 shooting. He finished the Orlando series shooting 56% from the field and 50% from three. Against Philly in Game 1, he shot 69% from the field, doing whatever he wanted against Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Simmons, and anyone else the Sixers tried to throw at him.
"He's got another gear," Marc Gasol said of the difference between the teammate he saw a month ago and his teammate this week. "We're going to put the ball in his hands. We're going to create shots and spacing, set good screens. And he's able to make plays."
The meaning of "Playoff Kawhi" has changed over the years. It wasn't that long ago that he projected more as a role player than an MVP candidate. Granted, "role player" for Kawhi meant he was the best perimeter defender on earth and eventually 2014 Finals MVP, but still. He wasn't a star when the Spurs won their title, and it wasn't clear that he would ever become that kind of player. Even as San Antonio gradually reoriented the system to build around Kawhi, there were moments when his game seemed a little too limited, or Kawhi, himself, seemed reluctant to embrace those responsibilities. At one point Durant famously dubbed him a "system player." In the playoffs against the Clippers in 2015, he averaged 12.5 points over two losses in Games 6 and 7, shooting 28% as the defending champs exited in the first round.
So he continued building out his game as the years passed. His ballhandling improved. His footwork remained impeccable. He became more comfortable operating in the pick-and-roll, and he improved as a three-point shooter. Two years after that Clippers series, he'd turned himself into a weapon of mass destruction. He became an MVP candidate throughout the 2016-17 season, and to the people paying attention, his offense was suddenly more impressive than his defense.
That progress becomes impossible to ignore during the 2017 playoffs, when Kawhi put up 43 points, eight rebounds and six steals against the Grizzlies in a first-round series. The Spurs ultimately lost that game, but it was the type of jaw-dropping display that seemed to put the league on notice. "I remember that," said Gasol, who played for the Grizzlies in that game. He was half-smiling, half-wincing when he said it. Then he added, "It's nice now that he's not getting his career-high against the Grizzlies. Now it's against somebody else, and I'm on his side."
Obviously, a lot transpired between that Spurs performance and Saturday's Raptors game. There was Zaza Pachulia's closeout and an ankle injury against the Warriors. Sitting out the following season in San Antonio with an injury that confused the entire league. Demanding a trade. Landing in Toronto. Missing another 22 games and introducing the term "load management" into the NBA universe. These are the things that made the past two years complicated, and that trend may continue through at least July, as free agency will bring a whole other world of questions.
Yet Saturday was simple. It was a return to spotlight for one of the NBA’s best players alive, and a reminder that Kawhi has been worth the trouble all along. After a year of “let’s wait and see” takes on this year’s Raptors, we’re all beginning to see now.
"Looking in the rearview mirror," Brett Brown said of Leonard Saturday night, "evolving under Pop and in the Spurs system. You could just see, like, this thing's trending in an incredible way. And fast-forward that and look at his skill package tonight, and the variety of ways he scored was incredibly impressive."
Each of the players in the conversation for "best player alive" has his own signature. Curry has range that's revolutionized the game and changes the dimensions of the court for any team trying to guard the Warriors. Harden combines historic offensive burdens with insane efficiency. Giannis is the MVP of the league and probably the single most dominant player anywhere. Durant is unguardable, capable of creating for himself and others, and one of the most complete players the NBA has ever seen.
Kawhi's trademark is the ability to take the oxygen out of an entire team. At the beginning that meant erasing a superstar's offense with man-to-man defense and 40 minutes of weakside blocks and deflections. Lately he can be seen bullying defenses into four quarters of flat-footed threes and 16-foot pull-up jumpers, a showcase that becomes increasingly demoralizing as the game wears on. That was Saturday night against the Sixers, but it was also at least three games against Orlando, a series in which Kawhi averaged 27.8 points in just 34 minutes per game.
The very best Kawhi games will make you wonder whether, even now, he's still underrated. We'll see. For now, after Game 1, there were various reporters who asked whether Leonard could continue making the shots he hit Saturday. I think the answer there is telling. Kawhi isn't great because he hits tough shots. He's great at using his body to create space, getting his shoulders square, rising up, and making every shot easy for himself. Teams can try to make him uncomfortable, but his genius is rooted in control. He can get wherever he wants go on offense, and wherever opponents are trying to go on the other end, he can probably stop them.
It's only one game, but the Sixers looked completely lost trying to solve any of this. And thinking through the Kawhi problems for Philadelphia, there's a real chance the Sixers won't be alone.