The Toronto Raptors made a big bet this summer when they pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade to get Kawhi Leonard, a move that might leave them empty-handed next offseason. But for this season, they knew they’d have one of the best players in the league, and Leonard is already showing why.
The team is out to a fantastic 7-1 start, with their only loss coming on Monday night against the still-undefeated Bucks with Leonard out of the lineup for rest. But he was back in action on Tuesday night in the Raptors’ big 129-112 win over the 76ers. It was a showcase game for Leonard, who led the way on both ends, and proved exactly why the Raptors brought him to town.
He poured in 31 points on just 19 shots, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out four assists. And of course he was creating havoc on the defensive end, where he swiped four steals and locked up Ben Simmons, helping to force the Sixers point guard into a career-high 11 turnovers.
Leonard matched up with Simmons to start the game, and right from the opening tip wouldn’t give the youngster any space. In fact, on the first possession of the game, Leonard simply took the ball from Simmons.
A few possessions later, Leonard read what Simmons was going to do on the fast break, and deflected his pass for another steal.
(Side note: the defensive strategy the Raptors employed here — using a big to wall off Simmons in transition and force him to kick it out, where other defenders are waiting — is the same one the Celtics had success stopping Simmons with in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see if this becomes a trend in the league.)
These two types of plays would reappear throughout the night. Late in the second half, after switching off Simmons — the Raptors do a lot of switching — Leonard once again read his eyes and jumped into the passing lane for a steal.
Poor J.J. Redick.
And then late in the fourth, Leonard put his finishing touch on the game by once again taking the ball straight from Simmons.
It wasn’t all Leonard, of course. Simmons had some offensive fouls and one possession where he just lost the ball out of bounds while going up for a layup. But the Raptors’ defensive mastermind set the tone early by forcing two quick turnovers, and frustrated Simmons all night long. Philly’s young star finished with the wrong kind of triple-double in the game, registering 11 points, 10 assists and 11 turnovers.
Leonard’s ability to take key opponents out of games like this is why he’s won the Defensive Player of the Year Award twice already in his career, and why the Raptors were willing take a huge risk — and trade away a beloved All-Star in DeMar DeRozan — to acquire him. If he keeps playing like this, it might just turn out to have been worth it.
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