Raptors star Kawhi Leonard thinks it’s a “little too early” for MVP chants, but it didn’t take him long to rediscover his MVP form after essentially a full year off. That much was clear Wednesday night.
In Toronto’s 112-105 win over the Timberwolves, Leonard scored an efficient 35 points (15-of-23 from the field) and defended at an All-NBA level. Like, what kind of devil magic is this?
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That no-look steal will be near the top of Leonard’s season highlight package, but one basic sequence should stand out above that spectacular play.
It started in the fourth quarter with the Raptors leading by 13 points and under six minutes remaining. Leonard dribbles off a Jonas Valanciunas screen, putting Jimmy Butler on his back. As Butler attempts to navigate the screen and recover on Leonard’s drive, the two-time All-Star pumps the brakes, takes a hard step back and lofts a silky rhythm jumper toward the basket before Butler can contest the shot.
On the ensuing possession, Leonard finds himself on the weak side with OG Anunoby guarding Butler and Anthony Tolliver. With Derrick Rose coming off a pick from Karl-Anthony Towns, Tolliver catches Anunoby ball-watching and slides down to the corner. From Rose’s point of view, this is an easy skip pass to an open shooter.
Except a giant paw suddenly appears…
Steal, pass, layup, timeout. Easy, right?
Just in case that didn’t effectively end the game, Leonard scored eight more points in the final five minutes to zap any hope Minnesota had left — because Kawhi is a basketball Terminator whose only purpose is to annihilate anything in front of him. There’s no emotion here. It’s just business.
That sequence is exactly why the Raptors traded one of the franchise’s most beloved and productive players in DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs. Leonard can completely change the complexion of a game on both ends of the floor. In a battle with Butler, a terrific all-around player, Leonard proved there is a difference between an A and A-minus star in this league. That’s not an insult to Butler. Leonard is just capable of reaching another level.
Leonard is now averaging 28.0 points on 51.2/47.4/89.5 shooting splits to go with 7.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals. He is not the only reason the Raptors are 5-0 — Kyle Lowry seemingly hasn’t missed a shot, and the rest of Nick Nurse’s roster is deep with talent and versatility — but he clearly raises the ceiling for a team with title aspirations.
It only took a few possessions to realize that.
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