But Leonard and his teammates would say that is off-base and that the two-time All-Star is simply rounding again into form and getting his bearings. If something, they’d say, that is merely the start of Leonard’s basketball rebirth.
In simply the second recreation of the season, Leonard pieced collectively a dominant stretch within the third interval, logging 15 factors on 5-of-7 taking pictures in simply eight minutes of taking part in time. The scores — aided by coach Nick Nurse and guard Kyle Lowry‘s effort to get him the ball in advantageous spots — got here in quite a lot of methods, mixing in a dunk with a face-up jumper, then a turnaround jumper, a 3-pointer, after which lastly ending with a layup. And it was throughout free throws he shot that quarter that the MVP chants first started.
“It is a bit of early,” he stated of the chants, earlier than including that he appreciates the sentiment.
However who might blame anybody for being this excited so quickly? Leonard hadn’t scored 30 factors in a recreation since Could 3, 2017, towards the Rockets, in the course of the Western Convention semifinals. He acknowledged that he nonetheless does not have his legs all the way in which again after on a regular basis he missed. And he is not but totally snug with the offense, which he usually breaks to seek out his personal shot.
“Half of our turnovers are him not having the ability to discover guys out of a double-team, or him not having the ability to get a rhythm on this ground shooting-wise. It is gonna take a while, between him being new and between not taking part in for a yr and a half,” stated Raptors teammate Danny Green, who came visiting with Leonard from San Antonio by way of commerce. “He is really approach forward of my schedule — nicely, I haven’t got a schedule for him. However I did not anticipate him to be at the place he’s now. Hopefully by December or Christmas time, or January, he’ll be again to his outdated, environment friendly self.”
The truth that he is not fairly there but did not cease him from punishing the Celtics’ efforts to cease him, whether or not it was Leonard manhandling Gordon Hayward off the block for a bucket, or Kyrie Irving shedding him for simply lengthy sufficient for the ahead to chop to rim for a dunk down the lane.
“I believe anytime he goes by means of you and scores, you are not doing something improper coverage-wise. He is gonna create a few of that stuff, as a result of he is an important participant,” stated Boston coach Brad Stevens, including that the Celtics’ double-teams had been often too late to cease him from making a play. “Irrespective of who Kawhi was towards, Kawhi was doing nicely.”
There are two noteworthy issues that stand out about Leonard’s scoring up to now. First, a lot of his shot makes an attempt would appear to go towards the grain of Nurse’s system, which relies on ball motion. Leonard, very like on Wednesday when a 3rd of his photographs got here after 7 dribbles or extra, took his time on Friday to create the seems to be he wished; even when they did not at all times come throughout the stream of the offense.
Nurse recommended he was nice with that in the interim.
“To be trustworthy, it wasn’t a ton of ball motion, however we had been attempting to get to some locations we thought we might get to,” he stated, maybe referring to perceived mismatches.
Secondly, and extra essential long-term, Leonard might quietly grow to be the Raptors’ personal model of what gave Toronto matches for years, earlier than LeBron James left the convention to go West. By single-handedly taking up video games within the second half and controlling tempo, Leonard might probably nullify a premier protection like Boston’s the identical approach James did with Toronto’s final postseason and earlier than — a dynamic the Raptors lacked with DeRozan, who’s extra of a finesse participant than Leonard, who can merely muscle and again his approach towards the basket.
On Friday morning at shootaround, Irving declined to match Leonard’s otherworldy energy with James’s, saying there was no pleasure in such an train. However Lowry, when requested concerning the energy Leonard illustrates within the put up, stated he very a lot likes what he sees.
“To look at it’s fairly cool. He can play his butt off — particularly when he is aggressive,” Lowry stated. “He is a man who’s onerous to cease when he will get to his spots, and I believe tonight he performed extraordinarily onerous and obtained to his spots.”
And to suppose, that is the just the start for Leonard and his new crew.