TORONTO – There are solely a pair minutes left in time beyond regulation as Kevin Durant brings the ball up the court docket throughout a late-November recreation between the Warriors and Raptors in Toronto. Scotiabank Area is boisterous, nevertheless it’s a palpable, nervous type of vitality. Raptors followers have seen this script play out too many occasions, and a three-point lead does nothing to quell their fears, particularly when the ball’s within the arms of a participant who has already dropped 51 factors and defied the unattainable in pushing the sport to OT.

It is the type of barn burner the Raptors used to lose, often in gut-wrenching vogue, and infrequently to a transcendent celebrity like Durant. However simply as these nightmares start to replay in Toronto’s collective unconscious, Kawhi Leonard‘s 11-inch mitts flash throughout to wipe them away, his left hand getting sufficient of the ball to knock it off Durant and out of bounds.

It is the second time in 5 minutes Leonard disrupts Durant’s dribble, a refined but gorgeous growth. The Raptors by no means relinquish the lead, 20,000 followers exhale, and a nationwide tv viewers (on TNT) involves grips with the truth that Toronto now has a transcendent celebrity of its personal.

Six days later, Leonard pours in 36 factors, 9 rebounds, and 5 steals to single-handedly pull the Raptors away from the Jimmy Butler-led Philadelphia 76ers – this time, for an ESPN viewers.

Steve Russell / Toronto Star / Getty

Toronto enters Thursday with a league-best 21-5 document, and whereas Leonard hasn’t performed in a back-to-back but as a Raptor, having been rested or sidelined (because of a minor ankle harm) for six of the staff’s first 26 video games, he nonetheless finds himself entrenched within the Most Precious Participant dialog. And the flexibility to play with none schedule restrictions seems to be the final frontier to overcome in his return, as a result of in case you ask his friends and rivals who’ve matched up towards him this season, they will let you know that when Leonard does swimsuit up, the previous NBA Finals MVP appears nearly as good as he ever has.

“He is there,” Butler instructed theScore after his first matchup of the season with Leonard, whereas nonetheless a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. “He is taking pictures the ball with confidence, the athleticism is there, I believe he will be simply advantageous right here.”

John Wall echoed these sentiments after a Washington Wizards loss in Toronto a month later when Leonard put up 27 and 10 in solely 30 minutes.

“He appears like his outdated self in my ebook,” Wall stated. “He is been wanting good all 12 months to me. I believe he did a terrific job of taking his time and getting himself wholesome.”

Even Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who has seen his share of nice gamers, had nothing however reward for Leonard following that 131-128 time beyond regulation loss on Nov. 29.

“He appears the identical to me,” Kerr stated of Leonard, who erupted for 37 factors and eight rebounds throughout a season-high 44 minutes within the win. “He was the most effective gamers within the league two years in the past, and he stays that as we speak.”

Leonard certainly was the most effective gamers within the league two seasons in the past, however harm and controversy dogged the two-time Defensive Participant of the 12 months over the following year-and-a-half, to the purpose that some questioned if he may ever recapture his previous glory.

First, the season-ending ankle harm throughout Recreation 1 of the 2017 Western Convention finals, with Leonard’s San Antonio Spurs up large on Kerr’s Warriors. Golden State received that recreation, the collection, and their first of back-to-back championships later that spring.

Then a mysterious proper quadriceps ailment restricted the two-time All-Star to only 9 video games through the 2017-18 season – the prognosis, remedy, and rehabilitation of which fractured his relationship with the Spurs. That bond, as soon as an ideal marriage between a franchise and participant each rooted in understated success, was by no means repaired. The Spurs finally caved to Leonard’s commerce request by sending him north.

The 2 events have since squabbled over Leonard’s management, or lack thereof, however the true questions and threat for the Raptors – past Leonard’s 2019 free company – centered round his well being. Had Toronto simply sullied probably the most profitable interval in franchise historical past, and turned its again on the group’s most loyal soldier in DeMar DeRozan, solely to accumulate broken items? Or had the staff boldly swapped a mere All-Star for a official celebrity, elevating its ceiling to true championship competition?

The outcomes up to now have actually advised the latter.

Within the 20 video games he is performed, Leonard is averaging a career-high 26.1 factors and eight.6 rebounds to go together with 2.9 assists and 1.eight steals. As normal, he is doing it effectively; of the 25 highest-usage gamers this season, Leonard’s true taking pictures proportion of 59.6 ranks tied for sixth with Anthony Davis.

“Simply throw it to him typically and he’ll go get you a bucket,” Kyrie Irving stated after the Boston Celtics‘ first matchup of the season towards the Raptors, through which Leonard exploded for 15 of the staff’s first 22 factors to open the second half.

“He is a post-up menace, he instructions double-teams, makes some robust photographs, will get it happening the stretch, and actually, he can put the entire staff on his again. He is proven it earlier than. He is only a particular expertise.”

Miami Warmth head coach Erik Spoelstra was in awe when his staff paid a go to to Toronto final month.

“What he is doing is extraordinarily arduous to do,” Spoelstra stated. “To come back off a protracted layoff like that, after which to alter groups on high of that, and to probably not present any rust or lack of rhythm, I believe actually is fairly spectacular. I see him taking part in at his highest stage, and I am positive he’ll proceed to reinvent himself.”

That is excessive reward coming from Spoelstra, who had a front-row seat as Leonard led the Spurs over the Warmth within the 2014 Finals.

However maybe Spoelstra’s declare that Leonard is taking part in higher than ever is not that far-fetched. Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle believes the ahead really benefited from his lengthy layoff.

“If you sit out the vast majority of a season, it is actually as if he hasn’t aged a 12 months when it comes to put on and tear on his physique,” Carlisle stated. “From that perspective, he has acquired to be excited, the Raptors need to be excited, and he is nonetheless very younger.”

Mark Blinch / Nationwide Basketball Affiliation / Getty

As spectacular as his scoring has been, any debate over Leonard’s return to kind begins and ends together with his skill to impression the sport on the defensive finish, and thus far, the testimonials match the attention take a look at.

“(The Raptors) added the perfect two-way participant within the league,” New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry says. “I do not suppose there’s any query about that.”

That, coming from the coach who spends every single day with Anthony Davis.

There are some indicators that Leonard may not be again to his normal defensive requirements simply but. Getting into Wednesday’s five-steal efficiency, his steals and block charges had been both profession lows or the bottom since his rookie season. As well as, the Raptors’ defensive score has been higher with Leonard on the bench (101.7 factors allowed per 100 possessions) in comparison with when he is on the court docket (106.2).

There are counters to those metrics, although.

The Raptors’ defensive score with out Leonard continues to be closely skewed by the staff permitting solely 83 factors in a win over the Chicago Bulls whereas Leonard rested, and their defensive score with him on the court docket would nonetheless rank high seven within the league.

Secondly, it could be Leonard’s defensive wizardry that’s really inflicting the bump in factors allowed. Matt Moore investigated that principle for CBS a pair years in the past and located that opposing groups froze out the participant on offense who was guarded by Leonard in an try and play four-on-four towards inferior defenders.

Carlisle admitted earlier than an October recreation in Toronto that Leonard is the uncommon kind of defender who groups recreation plan for.

“There are particular actions you wish to stay away from him with balls that is perhaps floating and stuff like that,” Carlisle stated. “There are some guys on this league – (Trevor) Ariza is one. He will get plenty of steals and is admittedly good. He anticipates properly. Leonard is one other. There are some level guards like that – (Rajon) Rondo and others that trigger large issues. You need to discuss these guys and at occasions stroll via issues, and level out conditions the place they are going to put themselves able to wreak havoc.”

Blocks and steals apart, Leonard’s mammoth arms, and the defensive disruption they bring about, nonetheless trigger all types of complications for his opponents.

“He is a freak. His arms are enormous, he is acquired lengthy arms. He is a terrific defender,” Ben Simmons instructed theScore after Leonard terrorized him and the Philadelphia 76ers in a late-October matchup. Simmons has now totaled 18 turnovers in two video games towards the Raptors this season, with a movie overview exhibiting Leonard at the very least partially accountable for 10 of these.

Even the person who torched the Raptors for 51 in that Nov. 29 thriller was deferential to the man tasked with guarding him on that pivotal possession.

“Kawhi is hard,” Durant stated. “I like to bop with the ball a bit, and you may’t try this with him as a result of he is simply acquired his hand proper in that dribbling lane. His arms are so large and so fast that he can get the ball in case you mess around. You have to use extra vitality simply to beat him.”

The defensive numbers do not all add up but, however opponents are taking pictures worse than their normal averages when defended by Leonard, significantly on makes an attempt nearer to the rim. He is additionally posting the best defensive rebound charge of his profession, which he credit to good box-outs from Toronto’s bigs.

Ron Turenne / Nationwide Basketball Affiliation / Getty

Whereas his availability in back-to-backs stays a subject of dialogue, it is price noting that Leonard, who missed a mean of 12.7 video games per season earlier than final 12 months’s quad challenge, has by no means been a regular-season iron man, and the Raptors do not want him to be one.

They’ve guess on 60-to-70 video games of Leonard – plus Danny Inexperienced‘s 3-and-D glue – offering extra two-way worth than 75-to-80 video games of DeRozan. Moreover, there are not any back-to-backs within the playoffs, and the Raptors fancy themselves deep and versatile sufficient to seek out loads of relaxation for Leonard whereas nonetheless gunning for the highest spot within the East.

That is significantly true if that is the model of Leonard the Raptors can depend on when he does swimsuit up, and there are causes to consider he is nonetheless getting higher.

With no back-to-backs during the last two weeks, Leonard’s performed in seven consecutive video games, his longest lively streak because the 2017 playoffs. Throughout that stretch, he is averaged 29.6 factors, 9.1 rebounds, 2.four assists, 1.7 steals, and a block on a real taking pictures proportion of 63.3, whereas logging 36.Three minutes per recreation and choosing up an Jap Convention Participant of the Week award.

“(The sport) is slowing down for me now, because it’s 26 video games in, and we’re taking part in each different night time,” Leonard instructed reporters after Wednesday’s win over Philly.

That is a scary thought for 29 different groups, because the Raptors have received 21 of 26 video games with Leonard rating fifth on the staff in minutes performed via almost a 3rd of the season.

How good would possibly they be, and the way a lot better can Leonard be, with none restrictions in any way? The Raptors are keen to seek out out. The remainder of the league sounds prefer it already is aware of the reply.

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