PHILADELPHIA — Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard added to his historic postseason run with 39 points and 14 rebounds in the Raptors’ 101-96 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinals.
The series, now tied 2-2, returns to Toronto for Game 5 on Tuesday.
“Kawhi is dominant, just dominant,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry told ESPN.com. “I’ve only played with one other guy like that, Yao Ming, where when he got it rolling, you can’t stop him. Kawhi has been doing this for a month.”
Leonard continued to score efficiently, draining 13 of his 20 field goal attempts on Sunday, and has now converted 21 of his 24 uncontested field goal attempts in the four games against Philadelphia.
Over the first nine games of the 2019 playoffs, Leonard has become the first player in NBA postseason history to average 30 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists on an effective field percentage greater than 65 (he is averaging 32.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists with effective field goal percentage of 66.2 percent).
Only three other players in NBA history have posted averages of 30 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists on an effective field percentage greater than 60 during a single postseason that extended longer than a single round — LeBron James (2016-17), Shaquille O’Neal (1997-98) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1976-77).
“He’s been doing it time and time again,” Raptors guard Danny Green, who played with Leonard in San Antonio for seven seasons. “He’s getting better with time and each game and picking apart the defense, taking what they’re giving him.”
In a game that started as a defensive struggle, Leonard paced the Raptors with 17 points and 10 rebounds in the first half. The Sixers sent multiple bodies at Leonard when he attacked off teammates’ screens, or invaded the paint from the top of the floor. Yet Leonard routinely was able to rise over defenders to hit outside shots or draw contact and earn a trip to the foul line, where he converted 8 of 12 attempts on the night.
“The stuff that he can get off — and we had two people out there — the stuff that he can do to create his own shot is Kobe-like,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said.
On the defensive end of the floor, Leonard applied heavy ball pressure on Sixers point guard Ben Simmons, his primary defensive assignment to begin the game, and roved as an active help defender when Simmons gave up the ball.
Midway through the third quarter, Leonard, a two-time winner of the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award, was moved onto Sixers guard Jimmy Butler, who has led Philadelphia offensively for much of the series. After 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting from the floor to that point, Butler converted only 2 of 7 field goal attempts with a turnover the rest of the game.
After hemorrhaging 116 points in 95 possessions to Philadelphia in Game 3, the Raptors restored their sturdy defense in Game 4, limiting the Sixers to an effective field goal percentage of only 47.6.
“In Game 3, we let them off the hook and they scored 116 or 120 points or something — that’s not what we do,” Leonard said. “The close games we’re in, the games we won, we held them under 100 points and that’s what we’ve gotta do.”
The Raptors relied heavily in the closing moments on a steady diet of pick-and-rolls featuring Leonard as the ball-handler. With Toronto center Marc Gasol as his regular screener, Leonard was able to navigate the gaps in the Philadelphia defense and find sufficient space for his shot.
“He’s been doing that for a long time now in the league,” Butler said. “He’s done that every game this series, so I don’t know what else you can do.”
Leonard’s signature possession of the game occurred with the Raptors leading by one point with just over a minute to go in regulation. After Gasol gave Leonard a screen above the 3-point arc on the left side, Leonard dribbled right and confronted Sixers center Joel Embiid before stepping back to drain a 3-point shot to give Toronto a 94-90 lead with 1 minute, 1 second remaining.
“I really just came off a pick-and-roll and tried to stay aggressive,” Leonard said. “They ended up switching. Embiid is a good defender, long. So at the time I just looked up at the shot clock and tried to get as much space as possible and just took a shot and believed that it was going to go in, and it did.”
Leonard said that upon release of the ball, he wanted to ensure the shot didn’t fall short, remembering past moments when some unsuccessful attempts had.
“I had times when I took those shots and they came up short,” Leonard said. “So just remembering moments like that, and practicing, and telling myself try and get it to the back rim.”
With the win, the Raptors regained home-court advantage against Philadelphia ahead of Game 5, where Leonard will have an opportunity to score 30 or more points in his fifth consecutive conference semifinals game.
“That’s Kawhi, man,” Raptors big man Serge Ibaka said. “That’s what he does for a living.”