Did you know the Sixers’ Ben Simmons had never played against Kawhi Leonard in an NBA game? To watch most of Tuesday night’s Raptors-76ers game, a 129-112 win for Toronto, it often seemed like Simmons had no idea who Leonard even was, and no grasp of the latter’s reputation. As Simmons’ turnovers mounted however — eight in the first half, and then another three in the second — he was taught an important lesson: Kawhi will make you pay for sloppy basketball.
That’s not to say the Raptors as a whole were the sharpest team out there, they just happened to be together more often than the bumbling Sixers. Toronto had their own bouts of sloppy play — Kyle Lowry stepping on the sideline before a 3, then trying for a charge call; Pascal Siakam running so fast in transition he forgot to pick up the ball; a 26-point third quarter lead that shrunk down to a mere six points late — but with Leonard once again as the great leveller, the Raptors maintained a firm enough grasp on the game to win.
“It’s pretty valuable, right,” began coach Nick Nurse in his assessment of Leonard’s much-needed value on defense. “It’s similar to his offense. He can score with the ball, he can score without it, he can score in or out and he can kind of do the same on defense. He can guard the ball, he can guard people coming off pin-downs, he can guard guys on the post.
“But mostly, I think it’s just [Kawhi]’s natural instinct for getting his hands on stuff. The ball’s popping around and, boom, he comes out of there with it any variety of ways. Post feeds, cross-court passes, pocket passes.”
Leonard would go on to finish the game with 31 points on 10-of-19 shooting (despite missing a few minutes after a shot to the face/eye forced him to the locker room). He grabbed seven rebounds, dished four assists, and clawed out four steals, at least one of which was of the particularly humiliating grab-right-out-of-the-other-guy’s-hands variety. If nothing else, all of Kawhi’s steals clearly rattled Simmons.
If the game became close, it was due to the three-point shooting of the Sixers (their own great leveller), who collectively put up 40 attempts, including a 5-of-11 streak in the fourth quarter. There was also the rebounding to account for, what with Joel Embiid throwing his massive body around on his way to five offensive boards. The Sixers managed 17 offensive rebounds to Toronto’s nine. Only Pascal Siakam, whose efficient 15 point-15 rebound night, was able to consistently keep the Sixers on their toes (so much so, Jonas Valanciunas joked even he was confused by Siakam’s relentless everywhere-at-once play). Props to Serge Ibaka (16 points, eight rebounds) for gamely trying to slow Embiid (31 points, 11 rebounds, four assists) anyway. And for his part, Valanciunas was also effective: 23 points on 14 shots, and he helped float the Raps’ offense when they went to the injury-depleted all-bench lineups.
The other difference maker for Toronto was, of course, Kyle Lowry. In his 37 minutes (oof), Lowry went off for another double-double, this time with 20 points and 12 assists, while shooting 7-of-14 from the field (and a restorative 3-of-7 from three). Much like Kawhi (albeit in a different way), Lowry was able to dictate the pace of the game. If he decided it would go one way — e.g. through a cross-court skip pass to a wide open Danny Green for a 3; or by Nash-ing it under the net to find a cutting Ibaka or Siakam — then it usually went that way. Lowry’s usual level of rage, typified by his early battles with the refs tonight, eventually paid off as he found its appropriate channel. The Raptors just rode along with it.
Which brings us back to the cool of Kawhi Leonard. The fourth quarter tonight began with an 8-0 Sixers run, and with under four minutes to go the lead did indeed shrink to six points. It felt like the Sixers had found their groove too, with the two-man JJ Redick-Embiid game, and Simmons climbing his way to a near triple-double (11-10-8). But then Leonard did his superstar thing: an assist to Ibaka, a steal on Simmons, an assist to Siakam, a three-pointer, and then one more jumper to push the lead back up to 18. That last bucket broke the Sixers, ushering in the bench for the final minute and a half, and sending the Toronto faithful into a frenzy.
“I’m really not, he’s that good,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown when asked if he was surprised at Kawhi’s level of play. “He really is that good. It’s great to see him playing basketball again.”
Simmons’ assessment was far more blunt and bleak: “He’s a freak. His hands are huge, he’s got long arms. He’s a great defender.” On the eve of Halloween, there could be no more apt a summary — Kawhi will be haunting Simmons for some time.
Asked Ben Simmons how disruptive Kawhi is on the defensive end after his 1st career matchup with him. "He's a freak. Huge hands, long arms." Said he can learn from matching up with him tonight— Joseph Casciaro (@JosephCasciaro) October 31, 2018