PHILADELPHIA – The Toronto Raptors have the stage to themselves. They are the only Canadian sports franchise alive in a post-season. It’s not that unusual. You can make the case that they’ve been the most successful Canadian sports franchise for the last several seasons. The Blue Jays have tumbled from their 2015-16 heights and will be a while to recover. Canada’s seven NHL franchises won exactly zero playoff rounds combined this spring.
Kick at the Raptors’ post-season stumbles all you want, but it’s been 26 years and counting since the Montreal Canadiens brought home the Stanley Cup, and Blue Jays fans celebrated a World Series title.
Could the Raptors join Toronto FC as a the only recent vintage Canadian franchise to hold a championship trophy?
They might. A win Thursday night in Philadelphia, which would put them up 2-1 and back in control of their second-round series, would be a big help. No one is suggesting the road to a title wouldn’t be the equivalent of trying to cross a frozen lake in late spring – perilous and with every possibility it could end badly.
But the reason the Raptors can dream is they have Kawhi Leonard, who is very quickly, very steadily and very efficiently making an argument as the greatest post-Gretzky era playoff performer to draw a pay cheque on Canadian soil.
The pending free agent may not be here for a long time, but it could be the best of times.
It’s an argument that is probably unwinnable – I have no interest in trying to parse the value of peak Erik Karlsson to the Ottawa Senators’ unlikely run to the conference finals two springs ago (yes, it seems like longer) to what Leonard is doing, or what Paul Molitor did in lifting the Toronto Blue Jays to their second World Series win in 1993 or Patrick Roy’s out-of-body effort in lifting the Canadiens to their improbable title, also in 1993.
But it’s worth bringing it up because it stands to reason that as the Raptors advance more Canadians will be drawn into the story of the NBA’s lone Canadian team shedding decades of ineptitude, dysfunction (going way back) and more recently years of playoff frustration to take a spot at the big-boy table in the NBA.
And for that to happen Leonard will have to continue doing what he’s always done in the post-season – prove himself among the very best of the very best in a league that is already the most exclusive gathering of global athletic talent on the planet. Keep in mind there are only 450 roster spots in the NBA populated with athletes from 42 countries. No other league is harder to crack.
Leonard is performing at a level reached only by the very best in the history of the game – Michael Jordan and LeBron James; the list pretty much ends there.
If attention needs to be drawn to what Leonard is doing in the playoffs – and has done for years now – it’s because he’s not going to draw any attention to it himself. He might be the least flashy of the league’s great players at the moment, but like a trusty hammer, all he does is hit nails.
Through two games in the Raptors series against Philadelphia he’s scored 80 points, even as the 76ers conceive of new schemes aimed primarily at stopping him. It hasn’t worked.
As head coach of the 76ers, Brett Brown’s job is to figure out how to slow Leonard down. It’s almost futile. Leonard scored a career-high 45 points in Game 1 and after the Sixers revamped their game plan in Game 2, they trimmed the Raptors star all the way back to 35 as they dedicated Philadelphia’s rangy, super-athletic six-foot-10 point guard Ben Simmons to trying to disturb Leonard’s rhythm. No such luck.
"I mean you just — especially since it’s now in front my eyes in real time as far as Kawhi’s brilliance — he’s really, really good. We all get that. But when you’re having to scout and game plan and it’s happening 20-feet from you, it’s exacerbated, it’s magnified," said Brown. "I think Ben did a really good job on him… and to your point you look down and he’s got 35. He’s just an incredibly, gifted, versatile scorer."
Brown was an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs when Leonard broke into the NBA in 2011 as defensive specialist who was a suspect perimeter shooter. In 2014 Leonard used his strength, six-foot-seven wide-shouldered frame and massive hands that earned him the nickname ‘The Klaw’ to play James to a standstill and earn Finals MVP recognition. In the following years Leonard polished his skills year-by-year before eventually becoming one of the NBA’s most devastating scorers in addition to his game-changing defensive ability.
For the Raptors he’s the security blanket the franchise has never had. In other years losing Game 2 and handing the Sixers a split on homecourt would have been cause for a nervous bout of soul searching. The Raptors remain calm heading into Game 3 and for the most part – judging by an always scientific scan of social media – their fanbase is keeping it together too.
"They made it a lot harder obviously [in Game 2] and I still think he made a lot of good plays and made some good decisions," said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. "He is just reading things really well and getting to some places where he wants to go… he can’t take on everyone. He has to make the right play and I think for the most part he really did. But it’s good to see him playing this way of course."
Has Nurse been on the floor to see someone playing at this high a level, this consistently?
"Umm, in person?" said Nurse. "…There was a guy we used to play the last couple of years. He was pretty good."
Ah yes, LeBron James. Raptors fans know him well.
Too many herky-jerky playoff results – and 10 straight playoff losses to James’ Cleveland Cavaliers — prompted the Raptors to fire Dwane Casey last summer after a team-record 59-win season and another playoff meltdown, which was awkward when Casey was named NBA coach of the year in June. But the biggest move came in July when Raptors president Masai Ujiri traded DeMar DeRozan, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and a five-time all-star, when the chance came to acquire Leonard, who was injured for most of last season and had fallen out with the Spurs.
Leonard showed hints of what he was capable of during the regular season when he averaged 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds a game. He would have been in the NBA’s MVP conversation if he hadn’t missed 22 games as the team carefully managed his return to action after being limited to nine games the season before.
But a rested, healthy Leonard in the playoffs has been a revelation.
It’s not just Leonard’s raw totals that tell the story – although he’s the only person in the playoffs averaging at least 31.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists at the moment and if he keeps it up would be only player in NBA history to achieve those marks while playing less than 40 minutes a game.
Leonard’s specialty is playing at a level of efficiency that is almost unprecedented. His True Shooting percentage – which reflects the value of three-point field goals, two-point field goals and free throws – is .696 so far in the playoffs as he’s averaging 57.7 per-cent from the floor and making 46.5 of his three-point attempts and 89.1 per-cent of his free throws. For perspective, two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors is considered the greatest shooter in NBA history and his career-best TS% is .675 and his best playoff mark is .680.
Another measure of overall efficiency is WinShares per 48 minutes and Leonard stands with the greats again as his .362 mark so far this post-season is second-only to James’s .399 in 2008-09 in the three-point era and his career mark is third to only James and Jordan.
But the numbers don’t capture the experience that Raptors fans are enjoying at the moment as Leonard can seemingly do what he wants, when he wants. It’s like watching Tom Brady carve up a secondary or Roy Halladay over-match batter after batter, seemingly without effort.
"You’re aware that something special is going on, you’re in the moment, you can see it and notice and feel it," said Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet. "You recognize that it’s something that you haven’t see a lot of – the efficiency makes it look pretty easy and like he never really breaks a sweat but it’s really impressive to be there and be a part of… what the stats mean historically you don’t really notice until after they put the stats out there.
"But in the game? You just know he’s really good and you love to have him on your side."
For Raptors fans and Canadian sports fans in general, it’s something rare and something to savour however long it lasts.