As the clock wound down on Game 4 in Philadelphia, ABC’s Mark Jones started to work his way through the superlatives over a Kawhi Leonard highlight reel. Starting with “magisterial” and ending somewhere related to “unstoppable”, he managed to sum up the general mood around Leonard as it relates to Raptors fans. To put it simply — there hasn’t been a player like him in the history of the franchise.
Needing a win to tie their second round series and take back home court advantage, Leonard was the lynchpin to a 101-96 Game 4 victory for the Raptors, as he had 39 points, 14 rebounds, and five assists. Late in the game, it was Kawhi’s step back three over Joel Embiid that effectively sealed the win.
In all facets of the game, Kawhi was excellent, getting his points on 13-for-20 shooting and 5-for-7 from deep. He had seven turnovers and was errant with a few float passes, but otherwise worked to get teammates involved and kept the Raptors ticking through new lineups and the series’ grimiest game yet. Both sides were throwing elbows throughout, as the defences locked down the paint and dared the other to beat them from outside. Given the final three point percentages were 32.3% for Toronto and 31.6% for Philly, the difference was yet again — Kawhi Leonard.
Or... maybe it’s not that simple. Since having their butts handed to them in Game 3, all the Raptors could talk about was offering Leonard help. While they didn’t get it from depth in Game 4, they got enough from three key players.
Lowry was one, once again playing well after being slighted in the narrative of the series. He had five early points, including an increasingly rare transition pull-up three — the ultimate sign of Lowry’s confidence — on his way to 14 points, seven assists, and six rebounds. Marc Gasol also had a better afternoon confidence-wise, knocking down two threes to help get to 16 points. He still left a few looks out there, both inside and out, but ultimately his defence more than made up for any tentativeness.
On the other side, it was another rough outing for Joel Embiid. Fresh off every taunt imaginable in Game 3, Gasol and the Raptors once again made Embiid look human in Game 4 — limiting his interior touches and packing the paint. The big man would finish with just 11 points and eight rebounds. Jimmy Butler would pick up the slack for the 76ers again, though, finishing with 29 points and 11 rebounds.
Before the game, much of the concern was on a Raptors player we haven’t mentioned yet: Pascal Siakam. With a leg injury forcing him to be a game time decision, Toronto coach Nick Nurse rolled the dice and went with Siakam with the starters, betting on the fact that, even when hobbled, he’d be better than the bench. While Nurse wasn’t wrong, in the end, Siakam still struggled mightily in the first quarter — missing his first six shots before heading to the bench. Lowry’s early start but the Raptors ahead, which they then added to with a 9-0 run with Embiid on the bench in the middle of the quarter.
Late in the frame, we got our first look of one that Nurse would return to frequently in Game 4, with Ibaka and Gasol playing together in the frontcourt. The pairing worked better on defence than it did on offence, especially initially, as Gasol made two great stands inside on Ben Simmons and Embiid.
Despite a 5-0 Sixers run late against some Raptors bench pieces, Toronto would take a 24-21 lead into the second. That’s when the lineups really got weird, with Patrick McCaw seeing his first action of the series in a lineup with Norman Powell and Lowry in the backcourt. They didn’t look bad, though, with McCaw’s activity able to help the lineup tread water until Kawhi’s return. Both teams had their offence come in fits and starts in the second, as the Raptors would head into halftime still up just two.
The second half proved to be a slugfest between the teams. Philadelphia found some bench life from James Ennis (though not much else), who made a trio of threes, while the Raptors got some jumpers from Serge Ibaka. In almost ever stat, though, the teams were equal — total turnovers, rebounds, total possessions.
In the fourth quarter, Nick Nurse made the adjustment of playing five guys with positive impact — even if that meant Lowry, Leonard, Siakam, Ibaka, and Gasol putting in some supersize minutes. In the end, though, the game came down to the play of both teams’ superstars. Leonard made the shot, the series is tied, and the Raptors have an opportunity on Tuesday to take a stranglehold of their own.