The NBA playoffs are reaching critical stages and there can be a lot to unpack with a few intense games every night, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Dominant Kawhi Leonard will not let Raptors fold, evens series with Sixers 2-2. We have seen this movie before, the one where the Toronto Raptors look on paper to be the team to beat in the East, but when faced with real adversity — previously in the form of LeBron James, this year in the form of Joel Embiid and Philadelphia — they come apart. The star players miss key shots, the role players fade, the defense stumbles, and the house of cards crumbles.
Sunday on the road, down 2-1 in a series where Philly had won two in a row and looked in Game 3 like they had figured things out, was the kind of moment where the Raptors have faded before.
Kawhi Leonard flipped the script and did this.
Leonard scored 39 points, drained 5-of-7 from three (8-of-12 on shots outside the paint), did not flinch in the clutch, terrorized Ben Simmons on defense, and lifted up his teammates — who gave him some help — to get a 101-96 road win.
Philadelphia and Toronto are now tied 2-2, making this a best of three that moves to Toronto on Tuesday.
This is why the Raptors rolled the dice on Leonard in a trade. It was challenging to get a feel for these Raptors at points during the season because of the words “load management, but this is why they went down that road — because peak Leonard changes the course of games, series, and franchises. In his last six games, Leonard has averaged 35.5 points per game on 62.5 percent shooting, hitting 52.6 percent from three and killing it all over the floor. If it wasn’t for that lanky scorer in the Bay Area, we’d be saying Leonard is the best player in these playoffs.
He’s doing it and, it seems, barely breaking a sweat in the process.
“I think that’s not fair to the Sixers,” Leonard said after Game 4. “I’m definitely breaking a sweat out there.”
Leonard’s play lifted up the other Raptors. This is the Kyle Lowry the Raptors need every game, attacking and aggressive on his way to 14 points and 7 rebounds, Marc Gasol had his best game of the series (16 points), Serge Ibaka stepped up into the minutes an injured Pascal Siakam could not and played well, and Danny Green hit shots and made plays.
Joel Embiid — still battling a virus we learned — did not put up huge numbers (11 points, eight rebounds) but his defense remains critical to Philly’s chances.
The Sixers just need to do better when Embiid sits, and Greg Monroe appears not to be the long-term answer to that. While one-game plus/minus is a flawed stat, it’s worth noting the Sixers were +17 in Embiid’s 35+ minutes, but in the 12.8 minutes he sat they were -22.
Jimmy Butler had 29 points on 18 shots to lead Philadelphia.
The Sixers have tried to make it hard on Leonard — look at that dagger shot above, it’s a step-back three over Embiid’s outstretched arm, how many guys in the league could hit that? — it just hasn’t mattered. Leonard has been brilliant, and when he gets a little help the Raptors are the deeper team in this series, and it shows.
Leonard and these Raptors felt like they were changing the movie ending on Sunday. If they can do it again Tuesday we will all start to buy in.
2) Denver is learning fast, wins Game 4 on the road to even series with Portland. This was supposed to be a learning experience playoffs for a young Denver team. This was one of the NBA’s youngest teams and its core guys — Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, in particular — had never been in the playoffs. There were going to be hard lessons that they would learn from.
Or, maybe they are more ready than we think.
For the second series in a row, these young Nuggets got down 2-1 and then won tough Game 4 on the road. Tired legs from Game 3 be damned, Denver got 34 points from Murray and a triple double — 21 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists — from Jokic, and the Nuggets got a 116-112 win on the road in Portland.
This series is tied 2-2 with Game 5 back in Denver on Tuesday.
This has been a series all about offense, which means the team that can get even a few key stops has a massive advantage. Denver did that in the third quarter of Game 4, holding Portland to just 14 points in the quarter on 35.1 percent shooting. Led by C.J. McCollum (11 points in the fourth) and Damian Lillard (15) the Trail Blazers made a comeback, they scored 35 points as a team in the fourth. However, down the stretch, Portland could not get stops. Murray had 12, Will Barton hit a couple of key threes, and the Nuggets scored 32 in the fourth to hang on and get the win.
This is the most entertaining series in the second round because these teams are so evenly matched. That was obvious in the 4OT game, but in this Game 4 it was more of the same: Denver had one more made field goal (40-39) but Portland had one more made three (12-11), with Denver making just three more free throws. It’s so close. And in those games it will come down to the little things.
And getting a few stops.
3) Jamal Murray had THE shot of the day on Sunday. If not for Lillard’s ridiculous closeout shot against Oklahoma City, this might be the best shot of the playoffs — Denver’s Jamal Murray with an opening moments over-the-backboard bucket.
After that, you kind of had a feeling it was going to be Denver’s day.