Is there any player you’d rather have left in the playoffs than Kawhi Leonard? Perhaps an injured 7-footer in Oakland has a case, though the Raptors’ megastar (potential) rental is currently on a tear unmatched throughout the league. He poured in 15 fourth-quarter points in a 41-point effort on Sunday, draining a game-winning jumper at the buzzer to defeat Joel Embiid and the Sixers 92-90. Leonard’s buzzer-beater dagger bounced off rim four times before going down as if kissed by the basketball gods, and Toronto’s gamble in July 2018 may go down as the best deal in franchise history. The Raptors will now square off against Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference finals, and the Larry O’Brien Trophy is just eight wins away. Toronto will go as far as Leonard takes them.
Through a regular season of James Harden threes, Warriors worrying and Giannis’s leap lurked Leonard and the Raptors, humming through the regular season largely on cruise control. Leonard played in just 60 games with a severe case of load management as Nick Nurse stitched together a newfound veteran core. With plenty of headlines in Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Boston, Leonard and Co. remained under the radar.
The narrative doesn’t exactly hold weight after the Raptors’ Game 7 on Sunday night. Leonard started the night a ghastly 9-28 from the field, but continued to empty the chamber, carrying the load like the league’s best high-volume scorers. Leonard is light years ahead of his 2014 Finals MVP form. He’s a more complete player than he was in 2017, a third-place MVP finish behind James Harden and Russell Westbrook. It was difficult to imagine Leonard being this dominant after sitting out last season in San Antonio. Perhaps Boston and Los Angeles regret not giving up the farm.
Serge Ibaka provided critical assistance to Leonard on Sunday night, trailing only Leonard with 17 points and four offensive rebounds. He was a game-best plus-22 and mitigated the Sixers perceived advantage on the offensive glass. Yet Toronto still found its bread-and-butter late in the game, feeding Leonard on nearly every available possession. Kawhi fighting to his spot is as high-percentage play as the Raptors have. Philadelphia could have taken a play from their playbook.
As the Raptors fed Leonard, the Sixers could not generate quality possessions for Embiid. He may be among the most dominant players in the league (as he’s claimed numerous times), though not when he’s completely gassed as he was down the stretch in Game 7. Embiid took just one shot attempt in the final four minutes and made just one bucket in the final seven minutes. Brett Brown and Embiid’s teammates deserve a share of culpability for Embiid’s lack of touches, but Sunday continued a troublesome trend throughout the postseason. Embiid is one of the league’s least reliable superstars, prone to illness, injury and exhaustion. It’s not a winning playoff formula.
Philadelphia will now begin to evaluate its future before a pivotal offseason. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are both free agents, likely guaranteed for nine-figure paydays. Re-signing both could lock in an expensive core with a potential ceiling—given Butler’s age, Harris’s talent and Simmons’s fit—while letting one walk marks an expensive trade as a painful sunk cost. As the East’s talent level rises, will Philadelphia lag behind?
Toronto will avoid its own existential questions for at least the next two weeks. If Leonard stays north of the border, a crisis will be avoided well into the 2020s. For now, the Raptors will bask in the glow of Leonard’s excellence, betting on their leader to outduel Antetokounmpo. Such a formula was unthinkable in Toronto last season, but the Raptors now have perhaps the league’s best player, ready to go toe-to-toe with any star in the league.