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Game 1 Turning Point: The Kawhi block heard ‘round the world

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After a blistering opening frame for the Raptors, Philadelphia’s combined star power was gaining traction. That is until Kawhi Leonard went full monster and put an end to that.

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Game 1 for the Raptors and 76ers began with both teams scorching the nets — at least for a time. It’s true Philly jumped out to an early 7-2 lead, prompting a Nick Nurse timeout. But afterwards the Raptors’ new dynamic duo of Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard dominated the remaining 45 minutes of the game, a fact made clear by the end of the first quarter with the pair combining for 34 points (an even 17 apiece) on 14-of-18 shooting from the field.

Siakam would go on to pour in 12 more points over the course of the game, turning things over to Leonard, who continued the torrid scoring pace in truly spectacular fashion. Naturally, Philly’s star power reared its stubborn head a few times though, including 15 third-quarter points from sharp-shooter JJ Redick. And that’s why the true turning point of Game 1 came not from a Kawhi bucket, but from a huge block on Tobias Harris, and the ensuing dominance that quickly followed.

Even if you weren’t able to watch last night’s Game 1 victory over the 76ers, you surely have heard about the block. You know, this one:

That block was just the beginning. Kawhi would follow it up with a perfect assist for a wide-open Danny Green triple, then a few more baskets before completely taking over the fourth quarter. Leonard almost single-handedly squashed any hopes of a 76ers’ comeback in the process. Leonard’s final two points came off an awkward, but poetic baseline floater that bounced around the rim a few times before falling in. All Kawhi could do at that point was simply shrug his shoulders, flip his palms up and think “just one of those games.”

It wasn’t just this game though. Leonard is proving to basketball fans everywhere over the course of this postseason that he’s just as special a player as anyone in this league, able to change the pace and tone of a game with just a few singular plays.

However, it needs to be said: this wasn’t your typical high-scoring affair. Kawhi wasn’t merely force-fed the ball. That insanely high shooting percentage from the first quarter held up for Leonard (and Siakam, who finished 12-of-15 from the field), finishing the game making 16-of-23 field goals and 10-of-11 free throws in just 38 minutes. Over and over Leonard got to his spots and took the shots he wanted to take.

This Toronto team isn’t just special as a group. They have both the collective and individual talents to dominate on either level. This wasn’t your run of the mill Raptors win — not offensively anyway. It was ugly at times aside from the individual dominance of Siakam and Leonard. Toronto managed just 21 assists on 41 field goals, and only nine three-pointers made as a team — two figures that were well below their usual averages. These are areas that need to improve if Toronto wants to take the series (or, say, win a title).

But Game 1 provides an important post-season lesson that not many Raptors fans are familiar with: the playoffs aren’t always about the collective efforts of the team, e.g. the strengths displayed by the Raptors teams we’ve seen the last five seasons. Sometimes it’s about just one player. Tonight that guy was Kawhi Leonard, who set a playoff career-high and is now second all-time in Raptors postseason scoring history behind Vince Carter. There’s a nice poetry to that too; he was another Raptor great who loved pouring in playoff points against the 76ers.

And a monster he was.