TORONTO — In the aftermath of “The Bounce,” the step-back three that came before it, the career-high 45 points, and now the double overtime marathon, it’s funny to recall that Kawhi Leonard’s character was ever in question.
A narrative was peddled last season, when he only appeared in nine games for the San Antonio Spurs, that Leonard faked an injury and threw away a year of his prime to force a trade to Los Angeles. After he was traded instead to the Toronto Raptors, the immediate reports were that Leonard wouldn’t even show up. And even during the season, when Leonard missed a quarter of the games for load management, his detractors used that to knock his toughness. All of this painted the picture of a player who apparently prioritized his own agenda over winning.
All that noise sounds ridiculous in the wake of his 52-minute performance against the Milwaukee Bucks. Leonard limped around from the first quarter onward after coming up lame on a layup, took on the gruelling challenge of guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, lost his co-pilot in Kyle Lowry to foul trouble midway through the fourth, and he still willed the Raptors to victory.
“(I) just want to win. That’s it. We’re here and no one wants to go home. We are going to keep striving and reach that goal. That’s what I pride myself on, both ends of the floor and this is what happens,” he said.
Leonard played like a man possessed after squandering chances to close in regulation and the first overtime. He opened the final frame with a spectacular dunk in transition where he took off with two feet beyond the dotted circle for a dunk over Nikola Mirotic.
On the ensuring play, Leonard drove hard and drew two defenders before throwing a nifty behind-the-back pass to Marc Gasol that led to two free throws. And after coughing up a turnover that led to a layup for the Bucks, Leonard instantly redeemed himself by picking off a pass from Khris Middleton, beating Malcolm Brogdon to the loose ball and taking it the other way for a dunk to keep the Raptors on top.
Then came the play that clinched the game. Leonard pushed the pace after Pascal Siakam skied for an incredible block at the rim against Brook Lopez, evaded a double team, turned the corner against Brogdon, neutralized the shot contest by driving his shoulder into his defender, and let out a primal yell as he scored the layup while being elbowed in the back to put the Raptors ahead for good.
Leonard finished with 36 points to lead all scorers, and yet it was his defense that drew the most praise from Nick Nurse. On top of being the first and only offensive option down the stretch, Nurse also assigned Leonard to cover Antetokounmpo. And while he got plenty of help from an inspired Marc Gasol, it was Leonard that kept a tight lid on the presumptive Most Valuable Player. Antetokounmpo finished with just 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting with eight turnovers in 45 minutes, as Leonard made him think twice on each drive and cut him off on the fast break, while also holding him off the offensive glass and limiting his free-throw attempts.
“(Leonard’s) defense was probably the biggest key of the game. Not only did he just play good, but he made some huge plays with some steals and rip-aways and breakaways. Offense was hard to come by there for both teams for a while, and any time you can get a steal and a breakout, it's a huge momentum play,” Nurse said.
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Game 3 wasn’t his best performance, nor his most memorable, but it will stand as an enduring testament of Leonard’s competitiveness. The best players reach an extra gear when everyone else is past the point of exhaustion, and Leonard emerged victorious through sheer will. He overcame exhaustion, the heavy workload, the double teams, the ailing left leg that needed extra treatment after the game, played both ends of the floor, and did it all to grind out a victory against a heavily-favored opponent. That all speaks to his character, and after this latest effort against the Bucks, there can be no doubt as to his priorities.
“He's a guy that all he wants to do is win. He doesn't care about the accolades, the points. As long as he's out there helping the team win, that's good for us. We feed off of that. He's a great leader for us. 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,” Norman Powell said.
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