Yet back on March 1, after a 38-point effort against the Portland Trail Blazers in which he hit the game-winning shot with 1.5 seconds remaining, the two-time defensive player of the year suggested he was holding something back.
“There’s 82 games and for me these are just practices and playoffs is when it’s time to lace them up,” he said.
Based on how the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs unfolded, it’s clear Leonard wasn’t blowing smoke. He noticeably took his game to another level as the Raptors eliminated the Orlando Magic in five games.
“I sensed that he wasn’t throwing it in all-out gear a lot during the regular season but he would still go out there and get 30 pretty easily,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said Thursday during an appearance on Prime Time Sports. “It didn’t seem he was having to work awfully hard to get them.”
When Nurse heard of Leonard’s “these are just practices” comments it fired up the Toronto bench boss, who noticed a difference in his star small forward’s tempo in the opening round.
“To me, he did that more on the defensive end [against the Magic],” Nurse said. “He became this defensive guy and I think I found out, or he found out, or we all found out that it translated to him moving a little faster at the offensive end too and playing with more force, so that’s good.”
Leonard averaged 27.8 points against the Magic – a 16-point outing in a Game 3 win when he was sick brought that average down – but more importantly was also a force when the ball wasn’t in his hands.
“It’s such a contagious thing,” Nurse added. “It’s like what I always talk about with Kyle [Lowry]. Kyle’s out there playing so hard and making all these plays and knocking big guys around and diving on the floor and all of a sudden another guy starts doing it. And now you’ve got Kyle and Kawhi both doing it and now those other guys don’t have much choice. They want to get involved in that too.”
The Raptors begin their second-round series with the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday. Leonard averaged 30.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists in three games against Philly this season and Toronto won the season series 3-1.