But which performance was best?
You might think this exercise is akin to picking a favourite child, but that’s not the case. I mean, kids are more of an eye-test thing. For Kawhi games, we have numbers.
More to the point, we have one number — Basketball Reference’s Game Score. It incorporates a variety of box-score stats in an attempt to “give a rough measure of a player’s productivity for a single game.”
We’ve pulled the numbers for every Kawhi game of the post-season to see how they stack up, and the results are surprising. Here are the NBA Finals MVP’s best post-season performances, starting with an important honourable mention:
If this were a “best moments by Moment Score” list — or if shots in the clutch were factored into Game Score — the game that included Kawhi’s heart-stopping, series-clinching jumper would be at the very top.
But, according to Game Score, this was just his 12th most productive game of the playoffs. And you can blame that on his relatively inefficient shooting (16-for-39 from the field) or the fact that he had just that many incredible games this post-season.
Anyway, on to the list…
Breakdown: Down 2–0 to the Bucks in their first home game of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors got out to a fast start, dominating the first quarter 30–21. The Bucks chipped away at the lead throughout, and closed a five-point gap in the final 1:13 to force overtime.
Kawhi went 1-of-5 in the first OT, missing a shot at the buzzer that would’ve ended it, but came up with a huge eight points and several highlights in the second extra frame, propelling the Raptors to a much-needed Game 3 victory.
Biggest moment: With Toronto holding a one-point lead in the second overtime, Kawhi grabbed the ball off a turnover at his own free-throw line, dribbled the length of the floor and threw down a left-handed dunk on Nikola Mirotic. Then he got another steal and dunk a minute later.
Key quote: “To be able to go out there and play 52 minutes and lead the team with his voice in the timeouts, telling us to stay calm, stay in the moment, not get anxious — it’s amazing to have a guy like that on the team.” — Norm Powell
Breakdown: In a game better known for Steph Curry’s 47-point explosion and Klay Thompson’s absence due to a hamstring injury, the Raptors led wire to wire for a 14-point victory. While all five Raptors starters scored 15 points or more, Kawhi still led with 30, doing most of his damage in a 15-point third quarter. He also piled up peripheral stats, putting up one of only eight stat lines from this post-season that included two threes, two offensive boards, two steals and two blocks. (See below for another.)
Biggest moment: After a huge Draymond Green block on a Kyle Lowry layup attempt near the end of the third quarter, Kawhi cut in front of Alfonso McKinnie to swat the rebound out of his hand. He then chased the ball to the sideline and flipped it back to a waiting Danny Green, who nailed a three to put the Raps up 16.
Key quote: “I feel like we just don’t need to worry about me scoring the basketball. We all can score with the offence that we have.” — Kawhi
Breakdown: The Raptors won three quarters. But the one they didn’t cost them. The Third-Quarter Warriors reared their ugly — beautiful? It’s in the eye of the beholder — heads, absolutely demolishing the Raptors in the third frame. Still, Kawhi did everything he could to keep the Raptors in the game, netting 34 points despite lower-than-usual efficiency, particularly from three-point land. His 16 free-throw attempts and five offensive rebounds were both playoff-highs.
Biggest moment: It’s not a Kawhi highlight, but there’s no other answer here. With the Warriors up two with under a minute left in the game, Kawhi jumped the passing lane, but the ball went through his hands. It eventually wound up in the hands of Andre Iguodala, who nailed the game-sealing three.
Key quote: “Kawhi almost got the steal.” — Pascal Siakam
Breakdown: Kawhi septupled the scoring output of the Raptors’ bench, which put up five points in total. The Raptors won the second half, but lost the first by so much that it ultimately didn’t matter.
Biggest moment: With a little over three minutes remaining in the fourth, Kawhi crossed up Ben Simmons to move to his left and hit a one-handed runner plus the foul. The free throw brought the game within five points — and the Raps would eventually get the margin down to one — but the 76ers closed on a four-point run to seal it.
Key quote: “Leonard has methodically and quietly destroyed his opponents. The 76ers have had no answer for the reserved Leonard.” — Sopan Deb, New York Times
Breakdown: It was an uncharacteristically quiet night for defensive stats, and a way-too-loud one for turnovers. But Kawhi made up for it by being absolutely lights out from the floor. En route to a five-point win to tie the series at two games apiece, Kawhi put up his most efficient shooting performance on seven or more three-point attempts in his playoff career.
Check out the shot chart. The red smiley face in the middle is proof he’s just messing with us:
Biggest moment: The shot clock down under two seconds, one minute remaining in the game, Kawhi hit a stepback three in Joel Embiid’s face to bring the lead to four.
Key quote: “We got humbled.” — Jimmy Butler
Breakdown: Just dominance across the board in another blowout of the Magic, made more impressive because he was coming off his worst game of the playoffs due to flu-like symptoms. Again, Kawhi put up a stat line of two threes, two steals and two blocks. He shot 60 per cent from the field and 89 per cent from the line, and turned the ball over only once in 35 minutes.
Biggest moment: Halfway through the first quarter, Kawhi caught a long pass at the three-point line off a Marc Gasol steal, avoided a steal attempt and spun to the hoop for a dunk.
Key quote: “He’s a Finals MVP. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do. That’s what they pay the man for, to come down here and be Kawhi Leonard.” — Aaron Gordon
Breakdown: The Raptors surprised some by taking two in a row off Giannis and Co. in Toronto, but the series would shift once it went back to Milwaukee, right? Kawhi made sure that didn’t come to pass. He scored 15 of his game-high 35 points in the fourth quarter to erase a two-point Bucks lead and take a 3–2 lead in the series headed back to T.O.
Biggest moment: Eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Raptors up by one, Kawhi sized up Brook Lopez on the right wing, used his dribble to keep the bigger defender off balance, and nailed a step-back three.
Key quote: “I’m not afraid of the moment. This is what I work out for in the summer. I’m just trying to win. It’s a matter of me being aggressive and don’t shy away from anything.” — Kawhi
Breakdown: It’s easy to forget now, but at the time this felt like a relative must-win. The Raptors dropped yet another Game 1, and some people (yeah, I’m talking about me) were grumbling about the more things change, the more they stay the same. But Kawhi had nothing to do with all that. He shot 68 per cent on 22 shots, and scored 37 in 33 minutes in a 29-point beatdown.
He also created a shot chart so green it could be a recycling PSA:
Biggest moment: It took all of 13 seconds for Kawhi to score in this one. He hit a pull-up 16-foot jumper on Nikola Vucevic and never looked back.
Key quote: “Leonard was great. What are you going to do? He was great.” — Steve Clifford
Breakdown: The ‘O Canada’ Game. The Raptors beat the Warriors handily at Oracle Arena, and somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 fans peppered throughout the building descended on a single section to celebrate. Kawhi shot 50 per cent from the field and 100 per cent from the line, hit five threes, grabbed 12 boards, got four steals and turned the ball over … not even once.
Biggest moment: The Raptors down by four at the half, Kawhi came out of the locker room and nailed a 26-foot three from the right wing in Draymond Green’s face. Then he stole the ball from Green and made another — again from the right wing in Green’s face — to give the Raptors their first lead of the game.
Key quote: “Kawhi Leonard came out and hit two big eff-you shots. There’s no defence for that. There are no schemes for that. That’s two big-boy shots that he came out of the half with — two back-to-back threes.” — Fred VanVleet
Breakdown: Forty-five points on 23 shots in 38 minutes to buck the embarrassing franchise trend of botched Game 1s and demolish the 76ers. This is the second-best Game Score figure in these playoffs (to only Nikola Jokic’s 41.4 from Game 6 of the Western Conference First Round vs. the Spurs), and the 13th best in the last 10 post-seasons.
Biggest moment: With Toronto up 18 in the fourth and the game essentially over, Kawhi drove through a double team and shot a baseline runner through contact. The ball bounced off far side of the rim, kissed off the glass and hit back rim before finally settling in for his 44th and 45th points — marking a new career post-season high.
Key quote: “Every year he gets more dominant.” — Brett Brown