Revisiting the Toronto Raptors Championship Run: Kawhi Leonard Erupts against Philadelphia 76ers

With no NBA playoffs for the foreseeable future, let’s revisit the Toronto Raptors 2019 championship run, one game at a time.

On this day one year ago, the 2nd seeded Toronto Raptors were ready to take on the 4th seeded Philadelphia 76ers, in what turned out to be one of the most competitive playoff series ever. The build-up of the series is what made it so exciting, two teams who rolled the dice on their roster and went all-in.

The Sixers made two enormous roster changes (Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris) during the season that seemed to have brought them to the peak of their powers offensively. Although we have never seen a team make two huge overhauls in their roster during a season and end up winning the whole thing, the Sixers believed in themselves to be the first to do so.

Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors made one trade during the season, the Marc Gasol trade. Probably a trade that doesn’t get talked about enough because of how great the Kawhi Leonard trade overshadows it. It’s odd because if the Gasol trade doesn’t happen do the Raptors still win this series? Gasol’s value peaked highest during this series and his defense on Joel Embiid is just not talked about enough.

Anyways, let’s get into Game 1.

The Score:

Philadelphia 76ers 95, Toronto Raptors 108

Kawhi Leonard and Siakam combine for 74 points

Two minutes into the game, Kawhi Leonard receives the ball from Danny Green. Kawhi Leonard, with 7 seconds left on the shot clock decides to post up Jimmy Butler and when Butler tries to reach in, Leonard has already spun around him and slammed it home for the dunk. That was his first two points of the night, a night he’d post his career-high, 45 points.

What was most impressive from this game, was his efficiency. Kawhi Leonard went 16-23 (69.6%) from the field, shot  3-7 (42.9%) from three, and shot 10-11 (90.9%) from the free-throw line. Arguably his most complete game in a Raptors jersey. He also managed to grab 11 boards, 2 steals, and 1 block. He made Jimmy Butler, a four-time member of the All-Defensive team look like a helpless cone on defense. This forced Brett Brown to make one of his two major changes for Game 2. Making Ben Simmons the primary defender.

So while Kawhi Leonard made the basket look like it had grown three times its size, there was another Toronto Raptor player who couldn’t seem to miss, Pascal Siakam. This game even had the duo drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen from a few people.

Pascal Siakam shot an impressive 12-15 (80%) from the field, 3-4 (75%) from three, and made two free throws, resulting in 29 points. His primary defender that game was Tobias Harris, who is a below to average defender. This prompted the second major change by Brett Brown, putting Joel Embiid on Pascal Siakam.

Marc Gasol limits Joel Embiid to 16 points and 8 boards

Coming into the series the best two players coming into the series were both Kawhi Leonard at number one and Joel Embiid at number two. Marc Gasol made Joel Embiid look like the seventh or maybe the eighth-best player on the court that day. Gasol contained Joel Embiid to a 5-18 performance (that’s a 27.8 % from the field… Ouch). Embiid was settling for bad shots, attempting to draw fouls, but Gasol wouldn’t budge. He held his ground and completely neutralized Embiid defensively, making up for a poor showing on offense.

Gasol also distributed offensively, knocking down two three-pointers and four assists. He was key in stretching the floor and keeping Embiid out of the paint on offense.

This would be the first of seven intensely close games between both teams, and a battle of adjustments for both coaches, Nick Nurse and Brett Brown.