Toronto gave Kawhi Leonard plenty of help in the regular season.
The Raptors need to start doing that in the postseason — or else.
Leonard is a free-agent-in-waiting, someone who will have a huge decision to make this summer. An abrupt second-round exit from this postseason probably won’t enhance the Raptors’ chances of convincing Leonard to stay with Toronto — so Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Sunday against Philadelphia, a matchup the 76ers lead 2-1, could have reverberations felt long after this season ends.
“We’ve got to help him. We’ve got to help him,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said after Philly’s 116-95 win in Game 3, a night where Leonard scored 33 points and his teammates shot 36 percent. “Myself, especially me. I’ve got to help him. Score more, I’ve got to help him on the floor. We all got to help him.
“He’s playing unbelievable right now. But we’re not giving him any help. Me — I’m not giving him any help. Got to help him.”
Leonard has been brilliant in the playoffs, averaging 31.5 points and 6.9 rebounds while shooting 58 percent. The only player in NBA history who has put up those numbers over a full postseason is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1977.
And the Raptors, who finished the regular season with the NBA’s second-best record despite giving Leonard 22 games off largely for rest and maintenance, are in trouble anyway — down in the series, and needing a win Sunday to avoid a 3-1 hole.
“As bad as everything feels, one win gets this thing back in our favor,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse told reporters in Philadelphia on Friday. “It is simple as that.”
Leonard has done more than his part.
He has averaged 37.7 points on 61 percent shooting in the three games. The closest thing he’s gotten to real help has come from emerging star Pascal Siakam, who is averaging 23.3 points.
The 76ers are almost resigned to Leonard getting his big numbers. They’re preferring to just stop everyone else, and it’s working.
When Kawhi is doing what he does, his individual offensive brilliance is daunting, haunting,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “Pick whatever word you want to say.”
Leonard has indeed been daunting.
The rest of the Raptors, they’re haunting. Or hurting.
Lowry is averaging a mere 12 points per game and shot 2 for 10 in Game 3. Danny Green — a champion with San Antonio, like Leonard, and someone who should seem more comfortable in the big moments that accompany this time of year — is averaging 7.7. Marc Gasol has gotten 20 shots off in 90 minutes of playing time, and the 76ers’ defense has been swarming in the last two games.
“Me personally, I’ve got to play better,” Lowry said. “I mean, I can’t go out there and shoot 2 for 10 and miss open 3s. We’re getting good looks. Look at the film, see where we can get better looks. They’re really just everywhere over the floor and we’ve got to start executing a little bit better and making them pay for their randomness that they’re doing.”
And the Raptors’ bench has been virtually invisible, but Leonard isn’t blaming the lack of offense.
“I think it starts with defense,” Leonard said after Game 3 as he looked at the boxscore. “They had two 30-point quarters in the first half. We’re not going to win like that. ... They got some easy looks at the basket. We’ve got to play better defense.”
If that doesn’t happen, it’s a very real possibility that Leonard might be looking to move on this summer. And that summer might start long before the Raptors envisioned.