TORONTO — The buzzer sounded at the end of Game 4 Friday night at Oracle Arena, and none of the Raptors celebrated their sweep of two road games that gave them a commanding 3-1 NBA Finals lead over the Warriors. They are Kawhi Leonard’s team now, and for him this was business as usual.
Following another ruthlessly efficient game of 36 points and 12 rebounds, Leonard left the court head down without smiling and walked stoically to the locker room, knowing the Raptors need one more win for the first-ever NBA title in franchise history. The rest of his teammates followed suit.
“I think most teams take cues from their leaders or their star players,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, including veterans Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry in that group with Leonard.
But Nurse acknowledged that Leonard’s first season with the Raptors following his trade from the Spurs last July was the game-changer for the franchise. “Obviously, he’s playing great and he’s lifted us lots of times with big buckets or runs of buckets or just that settling bucket when the place is going crazy and he’ll calmly sink one to kind of quiet the crowd.
“Once we saw him early in the year, I think your team’s vision of who they can become eventually changes. I say that with Marc Gasol, too. When we got him, I think we started passing the ball, our assists started going way up, and we became the No. 1 three-point shooting team in the league because of the extra passes and our sense of who they thought they could become went up.”
Before Game 4 when Leonard was asked about putting up fewer shots in the Finals than he had in earlier series, he attributed it to increased defensive attention from the Warriors and said he wasn’t going to play “hero ball” but would keep making the right pass to open teammates. But when they needed him in Game 4, Leonard simply took over.
He scored 14 of the Raptors’ 17 first-quarter points to keep them in the game when their shooting went cold, and then, he hit back-to-back threes to start the third quarter and give them the lead and scored 11 of their last 20 points in the third quarter to put them ahead by 12.
Describing the lifeline he threw his teammates in the first period, Leonard said, “I had faith it was going to turn around for us. We were missing wide-open shots. I tried to stay as aggressive as possible, get to my spots, be confident, shoot the basketball. I wanted my teammates to stay in rhythm and know that I’m going to give them the ball when they’re open.”
Despite shooting 34.1 percent in the first half, the Raptors only trailed by four points at halftime. Leonard understood the opportunity and seized it with his dagger threes to open the second half.
“We’re on the road, down four,” Leonard said. “We wanted to have a good third quarter coming out the first five minutes, stay aggressive on both ends of the floor, keep our energy up. That’s all we did.”
Some superstars play with flair, such as the Warriors’ Stephen Curry. But Leonard has been dominant throughout the playoffs by boiling things down to the basics and executing. It’s more subtle, but the boxscore is full at the end of the game.
“He played amazing,” Curry said of Leonard. He hit every big shot, momentum shot in that third quarter. It gave them the lead and then kept the separation. We’ve got to do something about it if we want to extend this series and have another [home] game.”
The environments for Game 5 Monday night at Scotiabank Arena will be over the top, and fans will be celebrating outside in the streets in Jurassic Park, but Leonard will keep the Raptors cool under pressure.
Asked if he can feel the anticipation building now that they are one win away from a title, Leonard shrugged. “You just got to be patient with it,” he said. “ … It doesn’t matter until you get that fourth win. We just have to stay confident in ourselves, be patient, don’t try to rush things and see how it plays out.”
Kawhi Leonard has put up huge numbers throughout the postseason rounds. Some 2019 playoff leaderboards:
Kawhi Leonard, Raptors 684
Stephen Curry, Warriors 568
Damian Lillard, Blazers *430
Draymond Green, Warriors 194
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks *183
Kyle Lowry, Raptors 143
*No longer in playoffs