MILWAUKEE — It’s time to start a serious discussion about Kawhi Leonard.
Not a discussion about whether Kawhi has outshone the likely league MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, during the first five games of the Eastern Conference finals, where Kawhi’s Toronto Raptors on Tuesday took a 3-2 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks with a 105-99 Game 5 win. The answer to that question is beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Not a discussion about whether Kawhi has been the MVP of these playoffs. Also beyond a shadow of a doubt: He’s averaging 31.4 points per game over these 17 playoff games, shooting 41.1 percent from 3 and 51.2 percent overall, grabbing 8.4 rebounds, and serving as the point of the spear for a defense that has turned Giannis and the Bucks’ highly efficient offense into a suddenly sputtering machine.
No, the discussion we must have is this: At this moment, is Kawhi Leonard the best basketball player on Earth?
Going into the 2017-18 season, Kawhi was a chic pick for league MVP, and considered a no-doubt top-five NBA player. Yet that disastrous, injury-filled season with the San Antonio Spurs, combined with this load-managed, north-of-the-border season, and we the American media collectively seemed to forget about Kawhi. Was he the same player that he was before the injury? (Turns out he’s better.) Did he have another gear for the playoffs? (Turns out he has several.) Is he really an MVP-caliber player? (Um …YEAH.) The question of who is currently the best basketball player on Earth seemed to center on whether Kevin Durant had surpassed LeBron James, and whether Giannis was on his way to surpassing them both, and where Steph Curry fits into the mix. We didn’t even bring up Kawhi’s name.
We didn’t even give him his due as the top two-way player in the league. This season, that discussion centered around Giannis or Paul George.
Seventeen games into the playoffs, is there even a question that, when it matters most — when we’re past the 82-game regular season that Kawhi a couple months ago dismissed as mere practice for the playoffs — it’s Kawhi who is the best two-way player on the planet?
And, basketball being a game where half your time is spent playing offense while the other half is spent playing defense, isn’t the best two-way player on Earth, by definition, also the best basketball player on Earth?
If you’re in a bar with your friends and this comes up, just serve up the game tape from Thursday’s Game 5. Just show them Kawhi from this entire series. Hobbled with a quad injury, he’s been not just a superstar but a superhero.
“He seemed to cruise to 30 points a lot of nights (during the regular season), and 30 is a lot in this league,” Nick Nurse, the Raptors’ first-year head coach, said before Game 5. “And that’s why I kept saying, geez, it just feels like there’s another gear here with this guy that we’re going to see.”
A couple hours after Nurse spoke, Kawhi kicked it into yet another gear, leading the Raptors to a 105-99 win. He scored 35 points on 5-of-8 shooting from 3 (“When he’s shooting the 3 like that, he’s unguardable,” said Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet). It was the first time this series the road team has won. Nurse called it — that game and this series — the very best he’s seen from Kawhi. Is there any doubt that this version of Kawhi is a vastly superior version of the Kawhi who won Finals MVP five years ago?
“It’s really different when you have a guy, when you’re with him every day and you’re witnessing it all,” Nurse said. “I certainly remember he’s been unbelievable in the playoffs with the Spurs as well, but you’re not as close to it. … He gets stronger as the fourth wears on. He wants the ball, and he wants to make the plays, and he seems to be making the right play for the most part. You’re almost shocked when he pulls up at 15 feet and it doesn’t go in.”
The Raptors at their best are not the Kawhi Leonard Show. Kawhi seemed to recognize that earlier in the series, and he has since eschewed much of the isolation, Kawhi-do-it-all basketball that he started the series with. When Kawhi shares the ball — his nine assists in Game 5 were a career high — the Raptors take it to another level. Kyle Lowry was dynamite in Game 4, and Fred VanVleet was dynamite in Game 5, his seven made 3s a career high. Pascal Siakam played one of his better games of the series in Game 5, and Marc Gasol — who set the tone in Game 4 — quarterbacked the defense while making one clutch 3-pointer. With this version of Kawhi leading the way — not Kawhi who the Raptors step back and allow to take over, but Kawhi the leader who gets his entire team involved — this is the best version of the Raptors we’ve ever seen.
We don’t know whether this version of the Raptors can push the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. Heck, we don’t even know whether this version of the Raptors will make the Finals; sure, the Bucks haven’t been great for a couple games, but an angry Giannis virtually guaranteed in the locker room after Game 5 that this series will come back to Milwaukee for a Game 7.
But I feel pretty confident in making a couple statements of certainty: That Kawhi Leonard has been the MVP of these playoffs. And that when he’s going all-out in the playoffs, Kawhi Leonard is the best two-way player in the NBA.
And if he’s both of those things, well, what should stop you from calling him the best basketball player on Earth in this very moment?