- Kawhi Leonard won the battle of elite NBA closers, as another impressive performance saw the Raptors take Game 4 and bring their series against the Sixers to 2-2.
Game 4 between the Raptors and 76ers was sloppy and somewhat stunted, notably replete with turnovers and fouls and missed shots, a messy vibe that ultimately swung in Toronto’s favor, a 101–96 win that was imperative as the series heads back to Canada knotted at two.
And as playoff games tend to do, this one boiled down to halfcourt play, with Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler trading possessions, two closers working in fourth-quarter heat. And with the score at 91–90 in favor of Toronto with just under 90 seconds left in regulation, Leonard stepped back for three going to his right around Ben Simmons, nailing the jumper that estimably iced the game.
Of course he did. In an era where highlight clips dictate players’ narratives more than ever, Leonard’s dominance is almost disconcertingly fundamental. When he gets going offensively, as he usually does, you can really only describe it as a show because of how often the ball goes in the basket. He’s a black-and-white film artfully explaining itself, tucked into in an era filled with sequels and binge-watching. He finished with 39 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and seven turnovers, every bit essential to a team that can’t survive at this level without him, particularly on a night where Pascal Siakam was less than 100%.
Games like this are what happens when benches shorten and teams are done feeling each other out: sometimes teams find their flow simultaneously, and sometimes the vibe is more like hand-to-hand combat. This series has inarguably belonged to Leonard in all cases. He’s totaled 152 points in four games and made 61% of his shots. He’s this good, and you can only call these performances true proof of dominance if you haven’t spent enough time watching him play. Load management is out the window, and that’s great for everyone but Philadelphia.
On the other end, the Sixers only made five field goals in the entire fourth quarter, unable to survive a prolonged drought despite an imperfect Raptors showing. Butler punched his way to the foul line when he could, but was seemingly their only proactive star all night, totaling 29 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. That and timely, expert shot-making from J.J. Redick can’t erase a 7-of-23 dud from Tobias Harris, 11 points from Joel Embiid and 10 from Simmons. They will play better than this, and they’ll have to. That this game was ever this close pointed only to the overarching sloppiness.
Though it was a forgettable afternoon in Philly, the good news is it bred a segue into what is now a best-of-three, beginning in Toronto. With neither team exactly at its best, this has become a battle of attrition, both teams tiptoeing onto unstable ground. The Raptors might be too reliant on Leonard; he might be good enough to win them two of three games anyway. The Sixers may not be able to get all their stars going at once mid-series; if that happens, there may not be any way to stop them. The stakes have raised, and Game 5 is Tuesday.