TORONTO — The second round of the postseason has brought a new level of basketball. On the bottom half of the Eastern Conference bracket, the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic are gone, leaving two teams playing at a much higher level.
And in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers, none of the Sixers' stars could come close to matching the level of basketball played by Kawhi Leonard, who led the Raptors to a 108-95 victory with a dominant, 45-point performance on Saturday.
Leonard had more field goal attempts (23) than passes (19). And with 11 free throw attempts added in, there's no doubt that he was calling his own number most of the night. But when a guy shoots 16-for-23 from the field and 10-for-11 from the line, the only objection can come from the opponent.
"I don't think we showed enough help," said Sixers guard Ben Simmons.
"[Leonard's] a superstar," J.J. Redick said. "He's as good as there is in the NBA at generating his own shot and making tough shots. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to him. I'm not gonna go into what our gameplan was, but I think we can execute our gameplan a little better."
This is a matchup of the two most dominant starting lineups of the first round. The Raptors' starting lineup outscored the Orlando Magic by 46.3 points per 100 possessions in 96 first-round minutes together. That's an incredible differential, but it was outdone by the Sixers' starting lineup, which outscored the Brooklyn Nets by an amazing 62.2 points per 100 possessions in 49 minutes.
Entering Game 1, there was a question if Raptors coach Nick Nurse would have to adjust his rotation so that a lineup made up mostly of Toronto reserves wouldn't have to match up with the Sixers' starters at the start of the second quarter. But before the game got to that point, the Toronto starters had done enough damage themselves.
The Raptors took control of the game with a 33-14, 7-minute, first-quarter run. They scored on 15 straight possessions and Leonard (17 on 7-of-7 shooting) and Pascal Siakam (11 on 4-of-4) combined for 28 of the 33 points.
It didn't seem to matter who was in front of Leonard. He started the run with a spin move on Jimmy Butler. He hit a step-back on Tobias Harris. He faced up on James Ennis. He hit a pair of pull-up jumpers when the screener's defender didn't step up in pick-and-roll.
Later in the half, the Sixers tried defending Leonard with Simmons, but when the two collided in transition late in the second quarter, Simmons went backpedaling to the baseline while Leonard stayed in control for a short runner.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but that was pretty cool to watch tonight.
"He is pushing it up the floor," Nurse said. "He is punching gaps with force and he is determined to get to spaces. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but that was pretty cool to watch tonight."
With Leonard the best player on the floor and Siakam – who finished with 29 points on 12-for-15 shooting – not far behind, the Raptors won the (10.8) minutes when all 10 starters were on the floor, outscoring the Sixers, 30-25, when the two dominant lineups went head-to-head.
Both starting lineups won the minutes when they faced opponent lineups that included at least one reserve. But, even though Marc Gasol played less than 26 minutes, the Toronto starting lineup was on the floor together longer (21.3 minutes) than the Philly starting five (19.6). With the Sixers lack of depth, their staggering of their starters' minutes leads to fewer minutes when all five are on the floor together.
Maybe that didn't matter given how well Leonard played in Game 1. According to Synergy play-type tracking, Leonard scored 21 points on 12 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions, a ridiculously efficient rate of 1.75 points per possession. He also scored six points on three post-ups.
Leonard's 45 points tied a career high, set earlier this season in a game against the Utah Jazz. He was with the San Antonio Spurs for seven years and has still played just 66 games this season, but 10 of his 18 highest-scoring games (35 points or more) have come with Toronto. He has evolved into a scoring machine, one that has been given the keys to the league's fifth-ranked offense.
Sixers head coach Brett Brown, who was with Leonard for the All-Star's first two seasons in San Antonio, said that Leonard has grown "leaps and bounds" as a scorer since then.
"Incrementally, every year he gets more dominant," Brown said. "Even when I came to Philadelphia, those years in Philadelphia looking in the rear view mirror of him evolving under [Gregg Popovich] and in the San Antonio Spurs system, you could just see this thing's trending in an incredible way. Sort of fast forward that and look at his skill package tonight, the variety of ways that he scored and could get his shot off on some pretty good defensive players and athletes was incredibly impressive."
Raptors president Masai Ujiri took a risk in trading for Leonard last summer, with the star having played just nine games last season and able to leave Toronto in free agency this year. In hindsight, no matter what happens in July, that trade looks brilliant, as does the Raptors' "load management" program that has Leonard feeling fresh at the most important time of year.
"We did a good job of putting a plan together to make sure that I'll be healthy at this point," Leonard said. "I have no complaints right now."
Neither should anybody in Toronto.
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