PHILADELPHIA – There are other takeaways from the most enthralling game of the Eastern Conference playoffs to date, but in a nutshell, Kawhi Leonard happened.
It’s impossible to disconnect Toronto’s Game 4 101-96 victory from Leonard’s greatness. He finished Game 4 with 39 points on an insanely efficient 13 of 20 shooting performance, slicing and dicing a Philadelphia Sixers defence that was below the frantic standard set three nights earlier. He maintained a clinical offensive outburst, steadying the Raptors when they fell behind for the first time in the third quarter. And when Toronto needed a big shot to secure victory, Leonard did that too.
With just 65 seconds remaining and his side clinging to a one-point lead, Leonard dribbled away from Ben Simmons, skipped back behind the three-point line and launched up a contested shot over Joel Embiid's outstretched arms. It was an attempt that would make even the greatest of shot makers shake their head in disbelief. That was instead a sensation left to the sold out Wells Fargo Center crowd, as Leonard’s shot slid through the nylon. Three points gave Toronto the breathing space they needed to head home with a tied series, while also offering Leonard a signature moment for what has been a historic bout against the Sixers.
“It was a tough shot,” said Simmons. “He shot over Joel. Fading a little bit so it’s a tough shot.”
Leonard now is averaging 38 points per game this series on 62% shooting from the field. If that sounds impressive, it's because it truly is a historical abnormality. Michael Jordan averaged over 35 points on 60% shooting in only one playoff series during his career. LeBron James has never done it. Neither have Kevin Durant or Kobe Bryant. Leonard is playing one of the best playoff series by a perimeter played in NBA history.
“He is a really good player and he has been doing that for a long time in the league,” said Jimmy Butler. “He has done that in every game this series, so what else can you do?”
Leonard’s dominance had been the only constant for Toronto over the first three games against Philadelphia. He received a helping hand on Sunday afternoon. Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol both played their best games of the series. Ditto for Serge Ibaka, who delivered the Raptors with their first double-digit bench scorer of the series. The change in Toronto’s offence was noticeable. While they struggled through another rough shooting performance – the Raptors shot 10/31 from three, missing a number of open looks from behind the arc – a more diverse attack provided just enough of a scoring punch.
“Yeah, I think it was pretty obvious that we needed some punch around the roster a little bit. It looks like we got four other guys in double figures and another guy with nine [points], so that’s pretty good,” said Nick Nurse postgame. “I just thought it was a different mentality tonight than it was the other night. Guys were looking to shoot, taking the first shot that was there. When they’re putting two or three [players] on the ball, you’ve got to get off it. If you’re open, you’ve got to let it fly because there’s not anybody out there that we don’t want shooting the ball.”
Simmons was once again tasked with slowing Leonard and his performance was symptomatic of the Sixers' team defence. The Australian was good in stretches on Leonard, but he lacked the tenacity Philadelphia had leveraged to gain two victories over the Raptors.
Joel Embiid was reduced to one of his worst performances of the season, due to an illness that had him throwing up in the hours before Game 4. Embiid needed an intravenous drip just to take the floor and battled, but was noticeably under the weather. Jimmy Butler carried the Sixers with 29 points and had them on the precipice of a 3-1 series lead, but Philadelphia lacked the execution needed to get there.
“They executed and they got stops,” Simmons said postgame of the Raptors. “Took care of the ball and I think they just played together tonight. There were spurts where we did that but at the end of the day you need to win games down the stretch playing together. I think we didn’t execute defensively with matchups. I don’t think we did as well as we did last game.”
The Sixers suffered through a seven minute field goal drought in the fourth quarter. This was broken by Butler, only for Leonard to counter with his decisive basket.
“You give Toronto credit,” said Brett Brown. “Their defence went up a new level. It was a closeout type of fourth period to go win a game. We went in tied at 75-75 and we went into a drought. There was probably a six and a half minute drought that was littered with miss layups, missed free throws, some open threes and sprinkled in with some turnovers. I get Toronto credit.”
The series will now return to Toronto for Game 5 on Tuesday night, and the Sixers are again tasked with winning away from home is they are to progress into the Eastern Conference Finals. Butler admits that the Sixers got humbled in Game 4. He remains confidence though, and reinforced the confidence that permeates the playing group. It's a sentiment Simmons shares. The Australian is eager to move on and focus on the opportunity that awaits his team in two days.
“You never let the highs get too high or the lows get too low,” Simmons said. “It’s on to the next game. We still have an amazing opportunity to go for the Eastern Conference championship and get to the NBA Finals. We are looking forward to it.”