TORONTO — Between the multiple MVP chants that rained down from the crowd and the 31 points and 10 rebounds he jammed Friday’s box score with in the Raptors‘ impressive 113-101 win over the Celtics, it’d be easy to assume that this, already, is Kawhi Leonard at his best.
Yet Leonard and his teammates would say that’s off-base and that the two-time All-Star is just rounding back into shape and getting his bearings. If anything, this is merely the beginning of Leonard’s basketball rebirth.
In just the second game of the season, Leonard pieced together a dominant stretch in the third period, logging 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting in just eight minutes of playing time. The scores — aided by coach Nick Nurse and guard Kyle Lowry‘s effort to get him the ball in advantageous spots — came in a variety of ways, mixing in a dunk with a face-up jumper, then a turnaround jumper, a three, and then finally finishing with a layup. And it was during free throws he shot that quarter that the MVP chants first began.
“It’s a little early [for those chants],” he said, while explaining that he appreciates the sentiment.
But who could blame anyone for being this excited so soon? Leonard hadn’t scored 30 points in a game since May 3, 2017 against the Rockets, during the Western Conference semifinals. He acknowledged that he still doesn’t have his legs all the way back after all the time he missed. And he isn’t yet fully comfortable with the offense, which he often breaks to find his own shot.
“Half of our turnovers are him not being able to find guys out of a double-team, or him not being able to get a rhythm on this floor shooting-wise. It’s gonna take some time, between him being new and between not playing for a year and a half,” said Raptors teammate Danny Green, who came over with Leonard from San Antonio via trade. “He’s actually way ahead of my schedule — well, I don’t have a schedule for him. But I didn’t expect him to be at where he is now. Hopefully by December or Christmas time, or January, he’ll be back to his old, efficient self.”
The fact that he isn’t quite there yet didn’t stop him from punishing the Celtics’ efforts to stop him, whether it was Leonard manhandling Gordon Hayward off the block for a bucket, or Kyrie Irving losing him for just long enough for the forward to cut to rim for a dunk down the lane.
“I think anytime he goes through you and scores, you’re not doing anything wrong coverage-wise. He’s gonna create some of that stuff, because he’s a great player,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens, adding that the Celtics’ double-teams were occasionally too late to stop him from making a play. “No matter who Kawhi was against, Kawhi was doing well.”
There are two noteworthy things that stand out about Leonard’s scoring thus far. First, a number of his shot attempts would seem to go against the grain of Nurse’s system, which is predicated on ball movement. Leonard, much like on Wednesday when a third of his shots came after 7 dribbles or more, took his time on Friday to create the looks he wanted; even if they didn’t always come within the flow of the offense.
Nurse suggested he was fine with that for the time being.
“To be honest, it wasn’t a ton of ball movement, but we were trying to get to some places we thought we could get to,” he said, perhaps referring to perceived mismatches.
Secondly, and more important long-term, Leonard could quietly become the Raptors’ own version of what gave Toronto fits for years, before LeBron James left the conference to go West. By single-handedly taking over games in the second half and controlling tempo, Leonard could potentially nullify a premier defense like Boston’s the same way James did with Toronto’s last postseason and before — a dynamic the Raptors lacked with DeRozan, who is more of a finesse player than Leonard, who can simply muscle and back his way toward the basket.
On Friday morning at shootaround, Irving declined to compare Leonard’s otherworldy strength with James’s, saying there was no joy in such an exercise. But Lowry, when asked about the strength Leonard illustrates in the post, said he very much likes what he sees.
“To watch it is pretty cool. He can play his butt off — especially when he’s aggressive,” Lowry said. “He’s a guy who’s hard to stop when he gets to his spots, and I think tonight he played extremely hard and got to his spots.”
And to think, this is the just the beginning for Leonard and his new team.