'Gifted' Leonard lifts Raptors

The Raptors' Kawhi Leonard and the 76ers' Jimmy Butler fighting for the ball in Toronto's 101-96 win in Philadelphia on Sunday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The Raptors' Kawhi Leonard and the 76ers' Jimmy Butler fighting for the ball in Toronto's 101-96 win in Philadelphia on Sunday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Toronto forward labelled as 'Kobe-like' after shining with 39 points to tie series with Sixers

PHILADELPHIA • It was all on display, the complete Kawhi Leonard show, and why it was worth staging in Toronto this season, even against ominous odds of there being another.

The Toronto Raptors on Sunday were facing their most challenging test in their bid for a deep play-off run and, in the process, to persuade the All-Star to sign with them as a free agent this summer.

Whatever the forward's intentions may be, losing is obviously not part of the plan.

Leonard is in the conversation of the best two-way players in the National Basketball Association, and his ceiling keeps rising.

In Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals on Sunday, he erupted for a game-high 39 points, including a three-pointer as the shot clock was winding down, enabling the Raptors to even the series at 2-2 with a 101-96 road win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

Sixers coach Brett Brown labelled his shot, which was converted over All-Star centre Joel Embiid with 61 seconds remaining and the visitors clinging to a 91-90 lead, as "backbreaking".

Unlike in Game 3, when Leonard shouldered most of the burden in a lopsided loss, he had just enough help this time, especially from the position - centre - that was a hot mess three days before.

STAR-STRUCK

The stuff he can do to create his own shots is Kobe-like - he's so gifted. We do our best to show him a crowd but, at the end of the day, that's a hell of a player. Thirty-nine points and you really felt all of them.

'' BRETT BROWN, Philadelphia 76ers coach, on Toronto Raptors' Kawhi Leonard.

Spain's Marc Gasol, who was obliterated by Embiid in Game 3, this time outscored him 16-11.

While the Sixers' key man had complained of flu-like symptoms in the morning and had barely slept, health issues aside, the differences between him and Leonard have been stark in this series.

Embiid, who contributed only 11 points, is a major talent but difficult to project performance-wise, game to game.

Leonard has been unstoppable in the play-offs and especially in this series, averaging 38 points on 62 per cent shooting.

Comparing him to Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant, Brown said: "The stuff he can do to create his own shots is Kobe-like - he's so gifted.

"We do our best to show him a crowd but, at the end of the day, that's a hell of a player. Thirty-nine points and you really felt all of them."

Of course, these games will haunt the Raptors only if Leonard does not submit to Toronto's metropolitan charms in July.

The experiment by Masai Ujiri, the Raptors' president, to trade DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for the 27-year-old last summer was a bold, calculated risk.

It was, however, far from foolish because he correctly surmised that the All-Star guard DeRozan, though a fine player, would never be the leading man on a true championship contender.

Leonard's availability, even with no assurance of re-signing him, represented a rare opportunity for a team with no championship pedigree to capture such a leading man.

And though he has shared none of his thoughts behind a face made for the highest poker stakes, speculation has not quelled that the Los Angeles native wants to go home.

For now, his future will be no further than Game 5 today, with the series heading back to Toronto.

In Portland, guard Jamal Murray scored a game-high 34 points, including six clutch free throws down the stretch, to lift the Denver Nuggets to a 116-112 win over the Trail Blazers that tied the Western Conference semi-final series at 2-2.

Serbian centre Nikola Jokic had 21 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists for his second consecutive triple-double as the visitors handed the hosts, who were paced by 29 points from guard C.J. McCollum, their first play-off loss at home this season.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NY TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2019, with the headline ''Gifted' Leonard lifts Raptors'. Print Edition | Subscribe