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The Toronto Raptors will play the Philadelphia 76ers in the first game of the second round of the NBA playoffs on Saturday, April 27, 2019.Matt Slocum/The Associated Press

Kawhi Leonard has never lost a game to the Philadelphia 76ers in his eight-year NBA career, including three great performances against them this season.

But don’t get too excited about that. The even-keeled superstar himself certainly isn’t. He’s the first to say history in this case is a poor predictor in the Toronto Raptors’ second-round playoff series against the 76ers.

Sure, he’s 13-0 against Philly, but the 76ers weren’t a playoff team in five of those seasons. Then Leonard was sidelined with an injury for most of last year, so he didn’t face them in their resurgent 2017-18 season.

He was certainly outstanding for the Raps against Philly this year in the regular season. He averaged 30.3 points while playing in three of Toronto’s four games against the 76ers, along with four steals, 2.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds. He also clamped down on Philly’s rising star point guard, Ben Simmons, with his defence.

The Raps won those three games by an average of 13.3 points and Simmons was a shadow of what he’d been in the one game Leonard missed – a 26-point, 12-rebound, eight-assist night for the Sixers’ point guard in a midseason Philly victory. Simmons totalled 24 turnovers in the three games Leonard played and just one in the game Leonard sat.

Most important though – and Leonard is quick to say this – that wasn’t the same Philadelphia team the Raptors meet in the playoffs, which tip off Saturday. The 76ers have since been improved by additions they made after the two previously met: Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott and James Ennis III.

“It was just regular season,” Leonard said after Friday’s practice. “The game is played a little differently in the playoffs.”

Leonard’s play at both ends of the floor in the playoffs had a key role in the Raps efficiently dispatching the Orlando Magic 4-1.

“He was really guarding. And the best thing about that was I think he found out that the harder he played defence, the harder he was playing offence as well, with more force,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “So he kind of got to a level of speed at both ends. And the big thing is they’d be making charges back from 15 or 18 down, and he’d score three in a row. That’s hard to handle mentally.”

Leonard – an NBA champ and finals MVP – was acquired to help deliver the Raptors somewhere it has not yet been in the playoffs. His teammate, Fred VanVleet, noticed a unique killer instinct in Leonard during Toronto’s first playoff series.

“The biggest thing that I’d seen in the last series was you could see him just taking those guys spirits away and breaking those guys’ spirits,” VanVleet said. “He was able to break their will so to speak, and that’s what superstars do.”

Leonard’s big plays have been when he slices through a pair of defenders for a dunk or eludes with a spin move for a lay-in. The three-time all-star exerts extreme pressure on opponents to limit their shots or just bullishly reaches one of his large hands in to steal, deflect, or block it.

“Those are my favourite ones, when he just decides there’s a guy and he goes and attacks him and tries to take it from him,” Nurse said. “It’s not easy to do and he can do it once in a while, and it’s pretty intimidating.”

Philadelphia coach Brett Brown is very knowledgeable about Leonard, though, having been an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs when Leonard was coming up there. Brown suggested multiple 76ers will help defend Leonard, including Simmons.

“I understand why this is – our history of lack of success – a real topic. I’ll remind everybody that we’ve never played them with the team we have and the context needs to be somewhat considered,” Brown told reporters in Philadelphia. “In relation to Ben and Kawhi, I think Ben has grown before our eyes.”

Leonard’s skills has been valuable to the Raptors, but if you ask all-star point guard Kyle Lowry, the superstar has also added something else of great value.

“His approach is really, really focused and I think we as a team have taken a lot from him,” Lowry said. “There’s no highs or lows. Just going straightforward. I think that is the one thing he has brought here – just straight focus.”

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