Throughout these NBA playoffs, Toronto has been treated to a truly great talent working at his highest level.
But it is hard to imagine that Kawhi Leonard can top what he managed on Sunday night. Despite an early hobbling, he steered his team away from a killing loss back toward safety. He didn’t do it alone, but it was close.
Leonard hurt himself in the first quarter on a full-speed, breakaway lay up. As he landed in the backcourt and wheeled away, he began that little skip that often indicates a pulled or torn muscle. Throughout the game, he limped around after whistles and grimaced exaggeratedly after hard drives to the basket.
He still put in the longest shift of his career – 52 minutes through regulation and double overtime. He scored 36. He hit all but one of his free throws, blocked shots and had key steals and ripaways. In the second overtime, he had eight of Toronto’s 15 points.
Also, he spent most the game defending the likely league MVP, almost completely marking him out of the contest.
If there can be said to be such a thing, this was total basketball.
As a result of Leonard’s infectious determination, Toronto won, only just barely – 118-112. This series has life again.
In the fourth quarter, Leonard was flagging badly. Toronto coach Nick Nurse offered him a chance to rest.
Leonard decided that if the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo went back in, he would, too. Antetokounmpo went back in. So, as Nurse recalled it, Leonard looked at him and said, “I’m ready to roll.”
Shortly thereafter, Antetokounmpo had fouled out. Leonard was still out there swinging, often quite literally.
It was a game of unusual physicality and attrition, even for this time of year. When Antetokounmpo entered the paint, it often looked like he was in the process of being mugged rather than defended.
Kyle Lowry watched overtime from the bench after taking six fouls. Norman Powell – another hero on the evening – did likewise. Pascal Siakam missed two free throws that would have ended it in regulation. Toronto had a four-point lead with 50 seconds left in the first overtime and gave it back.
There were a half-dozen points at which it would have made sense for the Raptors to give in. Leonard wouldn’t let them.
Now it becomes a question of figuring out how badly he is injured, and whether the effects are lingering.
Immediately after the game, he told TNT, “I’m feeling alright. This is playoff basketball. Everybody’s hurt.”
It’s not quite the same thing as, “I’m fine.”
Then, with a look so penetratingly deadpan you expected the lens on the camera to shatter, Leonard said, “Right now, I’ve got to just enjoy this win.”
I mean, c’mon. C’mon!
If you don’t love this guy, his approach, his single-mindedness, his inability to see anything beyond the result he’s chasing, you don’t love sports. If this man gardened seriously and you didn’t like his begonias, I’d say you hated gardening.
Taking his estimable natural talent out of it, Kawhi Leonard is as close as it gets to the perfect athlete. Watching him these past few weeks, you’re starting to believe he’d have made the NBA if he was 5-foot-4. It’s his will-to-power that makes him special.
When asked how Leonard was feeling ten minutes after the game ended, Nurse wasn’t exactly definitive.
“He’s okay,” Nurse said. “That’s a lot of minutes, but I think he’s okay.”
Leonard missed all but a small part of the 2017-18 season with a quad injury. He still receives regular treatment on it. It is the reason he sits on an elevated cushion when he’s on the bench, not that you’ve seen much of that lately.
Toronto is still in this thing, but only as long as Leonard can keep going. It’s clear he is being beaten flat by this exertion.
There is no way he can get better in Tuesday’s Game 4, because no one could. If Toronto’s going to win this thing, someone else needs to burden the full load for an evening. Two would be even better. Without Leonard at his absolute best, winning three of the next four is an enormous ask.
But that’s a topic for Tuesday. For right now, let’s stop to admire someone showing us why people invest themselves in professional sports teams staffed by multi-millionaires who get paid regardless of how things turn out. Because they do things like this.
However this series ends, Leonard just had a game that deserves to be talked about in ten years’ time. If Canada had a hill people, they would write songs about it.
The performance Leonard put in on Tuesday wasn’t sport, or not exactly that. It was about as close as this game gets to art. That’s worth celebrating entirely for itself.