Canadian men’s national team stalwart Joel Anthony had a front-row seat for some amazing basketball in a 10-year NBA career.
In his second season in the league he was a role player on a flawed Miami Heat team that Dwyane Wade carried into the playoffs in 2008-09. Wade posted career-high averages of 30.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.3 blocks in the most dominant single season of his hall-of-fame-worthy career. Wade was first-team all-NBA, second-team all-defence, and third in MVP voting while playing on a 43-win team that had won 15 games the season before.
As a support player on the Heat’s championship teams, Anthony watched LeBron James put up arguably the most efficient season in NBA history on his way to his second-consecutive MVP award in 2012-13. James averaged 26.8 points, eight rebounds and 7.3 assists while shooting 56.5 per cent from the floor and 40.6 per cent from three. His win shares per 48 minutes of .322 stands as the highest ever for any player not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain.
But in his last season in the NBA, Anthony had an ideal vantage point for one more display of individual NBA greatness – the 2016-17 masterpiece authored by Kawhi Leonard with the San Antonio Spurs, when Leonard was third in league MVP voting (with many analytical models arguing he should have been first) and had the 61-win Spurs well-positioned in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors before going down with an ankle injury.
“I was with them in pre-season [but didn’t make the team],” Anthony said. “And I came back and joined them in January. And you always knew Kawhi was good, but it’s different when you see him every day. When healthy, he’s the best two-way player in the league and easily one of the top five, top-three players in the league, period.
“I’ve seen some guys play at their highest level and [that year Kawhi] was right there with D-Wade when he had his [MVP-type] season or ‘Bron in those championship seasons [in Miami]. He was just amazing. That’s when I really realized how good he was.”
It’s the 2016-17 version of Leonard – the one who averaged 27.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals per 36 minutes that year — everyone is waiting to see as the 27-year-old works his way back to full fitness after playing just nine NBA games in 16 months due to injury prior to this year.
It’s still early in Leonard’s tenure with the Toronto Raptors, and while he’s been borderline brilliant from Day 1 for the NBA-best 21-5 club, in the past week, it’s becoming clear he’s beginning to find his groove in his first season not as a Spur.
He was a force of nature on Wednesday night in leading the Raptors to a win against the surging Philadelphia 76ers. He posted a line of 36 points on 24 shots including 5-of-6 from three – and nine rebounds to go along with five steals in the Raptors’ win over a key conference rival. He also made life miserable for the Sixers’ 6-foot-10 guard Ben Simmons, having helped harass the Philadelphia guard into an astounding 18 turnovers (11 and 7, respectively) in the teams’ two meetings.
But as the Raptors get set to play in Brooklyn Friday night before a six-game stretch against six playoff-bound teams with a four-game Western road trip included, it’s worth noting Leonard’s big night was not a one-off.
Measuring Leonard’s performance has been a game-by-game, quarter-by-quarter exercise since he joined the Raptors, with his minutes and his ‘load management’ schedule being scrutinized like an anxious parent might scan a report card. The so-called rust coming off his game has been measured in milligrams.
Is Leonard back? The answer seems to be a resounding yes. Over the past four games – three of them against elite teams — he’s averaging 33.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals while shooting 54.5 per cent from the floor. It’s a stretch on par with the best bursts of basketball he played in 2016-17.
Anthony’s memory of Leonard that season was of an athlete on a mission, able to carry the load night after night and playing at a level reached only by the game’s very best, at their best.
“What was amazing with those guys — like D-Wade [in 08-09] or ‘Bron the years we won the championships — was seeing them go through every game with a consistency of high level play,” says Anthony. “The focus, the consistency, that was the thing that was so impressive. I’ve seen guys be able to do it here or there and have a good night, but this was every single night, great play after big play and both sides of the ball. They rebound, they’re on the floor for loose balls, making big shots, huge blocks, game-saving stuff, in crunch time, not just during the [middle of the] game, and Kawhi was just like that.”
Leonard might be the last person to get caught up in a wave of good play, just as he showed no signs of being discouraged or impatient early on when his timing was still coming back and he was struggling with his three-point shooting. He seems convincing when he says his only goal is to control his approach, believing the results will take care of themselves.
“I just pride myself on going out there trying to win games and playing hard every night,” he said after the 76ers game. “That’s the only thing I look at to be consistent at.”
But he allowed after Wednesday night’s game that – the second time in a week he’s gone off in a game played under the glare of a national U.S. television audience – he can feel the game becoming easier, his process paying off.
“[The game] is slowing down for me now, since it’s 26 games in,” he said. “We’re playing every other night, but … making shots or missing shots I try to stay pretty much even keeled because you never know what’s going to happen.”
What seems to be happening is Leonard is reverting to his old, dominant ways just in time for the Raptors to face the toughest stretch in their schedule and just as the eyes of the league have turned to watch – it’s not by happenstance that after huge nights on TNT and ESPN in the space of a week both Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com ran ‘Kawhi an MVP candidate’ on Thursday morning.
“Like all of us, there’s bigger games than others, and he’s an immense talent, he really is,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “And when the stakes go up a little bit, he’s going to play his hand a little harder. I think the juice gets flowing, it gets him a little bouncier with his three-ball and a little quicker with the ball in transition and all that kind of stuff.”
It’s good stuff, as good as it gets. And the better news is Leonard has done it all before – just ask Joel Anthony.