TORONTO -- Kawhi Leonard saved the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday. The team with the league's best record needed him to smack the ball away from DeAndre' Bembryand stonewall Trae Young in the game's final 30 seconds in order to beat the lowly Atlanta Hawks by a mere three points. The play that stuck with me, though, took place about a minute earlier and had no bearing on the outcome.
With the Raptors down by one, Leonard isolated against Bembry. A spin move propelled him to the paint, and all five Hawks defenders had their eyes on him. Three of them converged, trying to force a turnover or at least make him give up the ball. In traffic, Leonard managed to find Kyle Lowry as open as he has ever been at the top of the key. Lowry missed the 3 badly, but that's hardly the pointThis is likely the play Nick Nurse had in mind when he said that Leonard has "a lot of arms climbing all over him," requiring him to use his considerable strength just to complete a pass. The Toronto coach lightly suggested that "maybe, some of those, he should be shooting free throws, but he plays through the hits and keeps finding people."
Leonard had six assists to go with his 31 points against Atlanta, and his coach probably wouldn't have praised Leonard in this particular way two months ago. "About 12-15 games into the season," Nurse said, Leonard started seeing more double- and triple-teams. In a new system, with new teammates, the superstar didn't always have the clearest picture of the court in his head, especially with multiple bodies flying at him. Over the course of the season, Leonard has figured it out -- his passing has never been better -- and is regularly hitting cutters for layups and shooters for wide-open looks.
"Even when Kawhi's in kill mode, things are flowing much better," Nurse said.
Leonard's kill mode is powerful. Last week against the Utah Jazz, he scored a career-high 45 points, 19 of them coming in a third-quarter takeover. It was one of the most impressive performances anyone has had this season. There is a natural tension, though, between the Raptors' offensive flow and Leonard's individual exploits. Some of that is relieved when Leonard makes it a point to be a passer.
"It's contagious," Toronto guard Fred VanVleet told CBS Sports. "And obviously he can get his points whenever he wants, but when he comes out and sets the table and sets the tone of passing, we've had some of our high-assist numbers."
This is not to say that the Raptors -- back in action on Friday against the Nets (7:30 p.m. ET; watch on fuboTV) -- are in perfect harmony. Their pace without Leonard on the court would rank fourth in the NBA; with him, it would rank 20th. The Hawks game marked the first time since Dec. 9 that he and Lowry had shared the court, thanks to injuries and Leonard's no-back-to-back program, which might be over now.
It is easy to see that Lowry has been significantly more aggressive and efficient without Leonard, but this is a reflection of a bigger issue, the defining element of Toronto's season: The coaching staff is trying to make the absolute most of Leonard's talent without boxing everybody else into limited, restrictive roles. Nurse understands why players sometimes end up standing around as Leonard dissects the defense -- when he is on the sideline, he likes watching Leonard go to work, too.
There is little mystery to how opposing teams will defend the Raptors in the playoffs. They will dare every role player, save for Danny Green and perhaps C.J. Miles, to shoot from the perimeter. They will try to take the ball out of Leonard's hands. The rest of the regular season is about preparing for this, but Leonard seems to have his part of the equation down. Last Saturday in Milwaukee, he assisted on all three of Pascal Siakam's 3-pointers.
Leonard does not pick teams apart the way LeBron James and James Harden do, but for a guy who has averaged 2.3 assists in his career, there is real progress on display. Keeping it up might vault him higher in all the experts' MVP rankings, and more importantly, it would help bridge the gap between the let's beat teams with our system strategy and the let Kawhi cook strategy. Against elite defensive teams, under postseason pressure, Toronto will have to be comfortable manufacturing points however they come. Bring on the triple-teams