If you’ve ever swam in the ocean, you know it when you feel it. It’s a slow realization, as you paddle forward with no forward progress made. A thousand faint news stories flash across your mind, you try to quickly remember the best way to fight against a riptide. The only goal is to not get sucked even further into the abyss.
In large part, this has been the experience of the Toronto Raptors throughout much of their playoff history this decade. Toronto seems to be perennial losers, and not just because of former Eastern Conference foe LeBron James (although he hasn’t helped). The playoff performances of stars like Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Rudy Gay, and Terrence Ross have waxed and waned from year-to-year.
But now? Now the Raptors have Kawhi Leonard.
Sunday’s Game 4 matchup between the Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers was a rough-and-tumble, drag-it-out fight between the second-round combatants. Toronto’s bench was better than it was in Game 3, and the Raptors avoided a third straight loss to even the series, 101-96.
Leonard scored 39 points to go with 14 rebounds and five assists. More important than that, Leonard gave Toronto a finish by a superstar who was not afraid of the continual pounding from Philadelphia. Jimmy Butler, who showed zero fear playing at home, could have easily been the victor of Sunday’s matchup. But Leonard was everywhere for his team.
The former San Antonio Spurs star scored or assisted on four of Toronto’s seven buckets in the fourth quarter, and added three additional points on free throws. His dominance culminated in a 3-pointer with 1:01 left in the fourth quarter with both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons draped all over him.
At the end of the shot clock, Leonard poured in a 3-pointer to give Toronto a four-point lead.
The rest of the Raptors squad was solid in a way that Leonard needed to backup his performance. Marc Gasol and Lowry combined to shoot 13-of-26, scoring a cumulative 30 points with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Danny Green added 11 points, going 8-8 from the free-throw line.
Philadelphia was led by Butler, who scored 29 points to go with 11 rebounds and four assists. The entirety of the Sixers starting unit scored in double-figures, but no player on the bench matched that feat. Embiid scored 11 points — seven of which came from the charity stripe — and despite his near triple-double of eight rebounds and seven assists, the Cameroonian big man shot just 28.5 percent from the field. After the game, Embiid said he was battling an illness.
This series has been more interesting than many expected, but Leonard may just be the ultimate determining factor or Toronto. In years past, it wasn’t just Raptors fans who felt as though in a situation like Sunday, Toronto would fold. But Leonard changes the dynamic not just of the talent on this team, but its fortitude as well.
Kawhi Leonard has those big old claws, and allows him to pull even further against the current. Plus, his playoff experience tells him he knows he just needs to swim parallel to shore in order to get out of this current the Raptors are in. By evening the series on Thursday, 2-2, Leonard did just that.