Toronto won a gritty Game 3 at home — and are back in the Eastern Conference Finals — because of Kawhi Leonard.
From the opening tip, he was the man guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo (although in a game with a lot of switching plenty of others also got their shot). It was the biggest adjustment Toronto coach Nick Nurse made — and it worked. Antetokounmpo had 12 points on 16 shots in the game and, according to ESPN’s tracking, was 1-of-9 when guarded by Leonard. On the other end, Leonard had 36 points, nine rebounds, and played 52 critical minutes. He was the MVP of Game 3.
And he did it all through a noticeable limp.
He landed awkwardly on a first-quarter layup and all game this clearly limited his mobility.
When asked about it after the game, Leonard shrugged it off.
For much of the season, whenever Leonard was mentioned so was with the phrase “load management.” He had missed all but nine games the season before with quadriceps tendinopathy — the treatment for that, and whether it was a muscular injury or not, was at the heart of Leonard’s discord with San Antonio — and in Toronto he missed 22 games in the regular season to help keep that issue at bay.
That may not be related to what is bothering him now, but the Raptors and Leonard had gone to great lengths to get him rest during the regular season so he would be ready for the playoffs. He has responded, being the best player in the East through the postseason so far. That includes hitting the game-winner to send Philadelphia home, then on Sunday keeping Toronto alive against the Bucks by force of will. But he has played a heavy load of minutes — physical, playoff minutes — to get there.
Will that slow Leonard Tuesday night in Game 4?
It can’t if they want to even this series. Milwaukee will play better in Game 4, keeping Antetokounmpo bottled up may be near impossible, and other Bucks had off-games as well (they shot 37.3 percent as a team in Game 3). Toronto will have to play better to keep pace. Marc Gasol will need to continue taking and hitting the threes (shots the Bucks dared him to take in the first two games), Pascal Siakam will have to have another big game, as will the Raptors’ bench.
But mostly, Leonard needs to be the best player on the floor again, the guy doing this:
If not, Toronto’s season will be on the brink.