TORONTO – The last time Ben Simmons faced off against Kawhi Leonard, things didn’t go very well for him and his Philadelphia 76ers.
“He’s a freak. His hands are huge, he’s got long arms, and he’s a great defender,” Simmons said of the Toronto Raptors star after their first meeting on Oct. 30.
In that game, a 129-112 victory for the Raptors in Toronto, Simmons flirted with a triple-double with a 11-point, 10-assist, eight-rebound night, but he turned the ball over 11 times, with Leonard responsible for five of those turnovers himself.
In all, it was a miserable experience for the 76ers’ star point guard, getting hounded by the former two-time defensive player of the year.
This was all before Jimmy Butler made his way over to the city of brotherly love, however.
On Oct. 24 earlier this season, the Raptors hosted the Minnesota Timberwolves and a disgruntled Butler had himself a 23-point night, but his team still lost as Leonard drew the primary assignment defending him in that one.
Between the two contests, Leonard picked up Simmons on 45 different defensive possessions and Butler on 41, doing his job as the Raptors’ No. 1 perimeter stopper by being given the task of stopping the opponents’ No. 1 perimeter options.
But what happens when a team has two exceptional players who can kill you with their perimeter skills like the Sixers have in both Simmons and Butler?
“Normally we’d throw Kawhi on Butler like we did when he was playing for Minnesota,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of how his team was looking to guard the 76ers’ two stars before the game. “Now we’ve gotta pick and choose.”
As it turns out, Nurse chose Simmons.
Though he alluded to a more balanced approach for slowing down the 76ers point guard, it was a steady dose of Leonard guarding Simmons once again that is likely to give the latter Leonard-inspired nightmares after another poor performance in Toronto. Simmons finished with only eight points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists and seven turnovers in yet another loss to the Raptors, 113-102, Wednesday night.
Butler, on the other hand, was feasting.
With mostly Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby guarding him throughout the evening, Butler went off for 38 points on 15-of-27 shooting, including a 4-for-7 mark from deep to go along with 10 boards.
Therefore, it’s a good thing Leonard was every bit as good offensively as Butler, finishing with a monstrous line of his own in scoring 36 points on 13-for-24 shooting, including a scorching 5-for-6 from behind the arc while stuffing the rest of the stat sheet with nine rebounds, five steals and a blocked shot.
“He’s an immense talent, he really is,” Nurse said of Leonard after the game. “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.”
This is the fourth straight game that Leonard has been in awesome form, and the Raptors needed every bit of it Wednesday as they looked to be in real trouble through the first three quarters before Jonas Valanciunas took over in the fourth to effectively put the game on ice.
Leonard’s performance earned him “MVP” chants from the sell-out crowd during the game and thanks to essentially just his offensive contributions, Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka’s strong efforts – the big men dominated their matchup with Philadelphia all-star centre Joel Embiid, combining for 44 points – and taking advantage of Philly’s butterfingers in scoring 27 points off 21 Sixers turnovers, Toronto was able to prevail.
What the Raptors weren’t effective in doing on Wednesday, however, was finding a proper answer for Butler.
Whereas Leonard was able to tidily take care of his matchup on both ends of the floor, Butler was a real problem, and if the Sixers are able to clean up their turnover issues, with Butler in the fold, they could be much more dangerous.
There’s a real possibility the Raptors could see this same 76ers team down the road in the post-season and as good as Leonard was and can be, just relying on his brilliance or 76ers mistakes to mask the fact Butler can have his way with the Raptors’ defence isn’t going to cut it.
Nurse opted to go with Simmons as the guy he wanted to shut down. It worked on Wednedsay, but it took a bailout job from his superstar to make it end in the result he was hoping for. The next time the choice may not be as simple.