NBA's biggest stars marvel at rejuvenated Kawhi Leonard
theScore

TORONTO - There are only a couple minutes left in overtime as Kevin Durant brings the ball up the court during a late-November game between the Warriors and Raptors in Toronto. Scotiabank Arena is boisterous, but it's a palpable, nervous kind of energy. Raptors fans have seen this script play out too many times, and a three-point lead does nothing to quell their fears, especially when the ball's in the hands of a player who has already dropped 51 points and defied the impossible in pushing the game to OT.

It's the kind of barn burner the Raptors used to lose, usually in gut-wrenching fashion, and often to a transcendent superstar like Durant. But just as those nightmares begin to replay in Toronto's collective subconscious, Kawhi Leonard's 11-inch mitts flash across to wipe them away, his left hand getting enough of the ball to knock it off Durant and out of bounds.

It's the second time in five minutes Leonard disrupts Durant's dribble, a subtle yet stunning development. The Raptors never relinquish the lead, 20,000 fans exhale, and a national television audience (on TNT) comes to grips with the fact that Toronto now has a transcendent superstar of its own.

Six days later, Leonard pours in 36 points, nine rebounds, and five steals to single-handedly pull the Raptors away from the Jimmy Butler-led Philadelphia 76ers - this time, for an ESPN audience.

Steve Russell / Toronto Star / Getty

Toronto enters Thursday with a league-best 21-5 record, and while Leonard hasn't played in a back-to-back yet as a Raptor, having been rested or sidelined (due to a minor ankle injury) for six of the team's first 26 games, he still finds himself entrenched in the Most Valuable Player conversation. And the ability to play without any schedule restrictions appears to be the last frontier to conquer in his return, because if you ask his peers and rivals who have matched up against him this season, they'll tell you that when Leonard does suit up, the former NBA Finals MVP looks as good as he ever has.

"He's there," Butler told theScore after his first matchup of the season with Leonard, while still a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. "He's shooting the ball with confidence, the athleticism is there, I think he's going to be just fine here."

John Wall echoed those sentiments after a Washington Wizards loss in Toronto a month later when Leonard put up 27 and 10 in only 30 minutes.

"He looks like his old self in my book," Wall said. "He's been looking good all year to me. I think he did a great job of taking his time and getting himself healthy."

Even Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who has seen his share of great players, had nothing but praise for Leonard following that 131-128 overtime loss on Nov. 29.

"He looks the same to me," Kerr said of Leonard, who erupted for 37 points and eight rebounds during a season-high 44 minutes in the win. "He was one of the best players in the league two years ago, and he remains that today."

Leonard indeed was one of the best players in the league two seasons ago, but injury and controversy dogged the two-time Defensive Player of the Year over the next year-and-a-half, to the point that some wondered if he could ever recapture his past glory.

First, the season-ending ankle injury during Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals, with Leonard's San Antonio Spurs up big on Kerr's Warriors. Golden State won that game, the series, and their first of back-to-back championships later that spring.

Then a mysterious right quadriceps ailment limited the two-time All-Star to just nine games during the 2017-18 season - the diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of which fractured his relationship with the Spurs. That bond, once a perfect marriage between a franchise and player both rooted in understated success, was never repaired. The Spurs eventually caved to Leonard's trade request by sending him north.

The two parties have since squabbled over Leonard's leadership, or lack thereof, but the real questions and risk for the Raptors - beyond Leonard's 2019 free agency - centered around his health. Had Toronto just sullied the most successful period in franchise history, and turned its back on the organization's most loyal soldier in DeMar DeRozan, only to acquire damaged goods? Or had the team boldly swapped a mere All-Star for a legitimate superstar, elevating its ceiling to true championship contention?

The results to this point have certainly suggested the latter.

In the 20 games he's played, Leonard is averaging a career-high 26.1 points and 8.6 rebounds to go along with 2.9 assists and 1.8 steals. As usual, he's doing it efficiently; of the 25 highest-usage players this season, Leonard's true shooting percentage of 59.6 ranks tied for sixth with Anthony Davis.

"Just throw it to him sometimes and he'll go get you a bucket," Kyrie Irving said after the Boston Celtics' first matchup of the season against the Raptors, in which Leonard exploded for 15 of the team's first 22 points to open the second half.

"He's a post-up threat, he commands double-teams, makes some tough shots, gets it going down the stretch, and honestly, he can put the whole team on his back. He's shown it before. He's just a special talent."

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra was in awe when his team paid a visit to Toronto last month.

"What he's doing is extremely hard to do," Spoelstra said. "To come off a long layoff like that, and then to change teams on top of that, and to not really show any rust or lack of rhythm, I think really is pretty impressive. I see him playing at his highest level, and I'm sure he'll continue to reinvent himself."

That's high praise coming from Spoelstra, who had a front-row seat as Leonard led the Spurs over the Heat in the 2014 Finals.

But perhaps Spoelstra's claim that Leonard is playing better than ever isn't that far-fetched. Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle believes the forward actually benefited from his long layoff.

"When you sit out the majority of a season, it's really as if he hasn't aged a year in terms of wear and tear on his body," Carlisle said. "From that perspective, he has got to be excited, the Raptors have to be excited, and he's still very young."

Mark Blinch / National Basketball Association / Getty

As impressive as his scoring has been, any debate over Leonard's return to form begins and ends with his ability to impact the game on the defensive end, and so far, the testimonials match the eye test.

"(The Raptors) added the best two-way player in the league," New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry says. "I don't think there’s any question about that."

That, coming from the coach who spends every day with Anthony Davis.

There are some signs that Leonard might not be back to his usual defensive standards just yet. Entering Wednesday's five-steal performance, his steals and block rates were either career lows or the lowest since his rookie season. In addition, the Raptors' defensive rating has been better with Leonard on the bench (101.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) compared to when he's on the court (106.2).

There are counters to these metrics, though.

The Raptors' defensive rating without Leonard is still heavily skewed by the team allowing only 83 points in a win over the Chicago Bulls while Leonard rested, and their defensive rating with him on the court would still rank top seven in the league.

Secondly, it may be Leonard's defensive wizardry that is actually causing the bump in points allowed. Matt Moore investigated that theory for CBS a couple years ago and found that opposing teams froze out the player on offense who was guarded by Leonard in an attempt to play four-on-four against inferior defenders.

Carlisle admitted before an October game in Toronto that Leonard is the rare type of defender who teams game plan for.

"There are certain actions you want to keep away from him with balls that might be floating and stuff like that," Carlisle said. "There are some guys in this league - (Trevor) Ariza is one. He gets a lot of steals and is really smart. He anticipates well. Leonard is another. There are some point guards like that - (Rajon) Rondo and others that cause big problems. You have to talk about those guys and at times walk through things, and point out situations where they're going to put themselves in a position to wreak havoc."

Blocks and steals aside, Leonard's mammoth hands, and the defensive disruption they bring, still cause all kinds of headaches for his opponents.

"He's a freak. His hands are huge, he's got long arms. He's a great defender," Ben Simmons told theScore after Leonard terrorized him and the Philadelphia 76ers in a late-October matchup. Simmons has now totaled 18 turnovers in two games against the Raptors this season, with a film review showing Leonard at least partially responsible for 10 of those.

Even the man who torched the Raptors for 51 in that Nov. 29 thriller was deferential to the guy tasked with guarding him on that pivotal possession.

"Kawhi is tough," Durant said. "I like to dance with the ball a bit, and you can't do that with him because he's just got his hand right in that dribbling lane. His hands are so big and so quick that he can get the ball if you play around. You've got to use more energy just to beat him."

The defensive numbers don't all add up yet, but opponents are shooting worse than their usual averages when defended by Leonard, particularly on attempts closer to the rim. He's also posting the highest defensive rebound rate of his career, which he credits to good box-outs from Toronto's bigs.

Ron Turenne / National Basketball Association / Getty

While his availability in back-to-backs remains a topic of discussion, it's worth noting that Leonard, who missed an average of 12.7 games per season before last year's quad issue, has never been a regular-season iron man, and the Raptors don't need him to be one.

They've bet on 60-to-70 games of Leonard - plus Danny Green's 3-and-D glue - providing more two-way value than 75-to-80 games of DeRozan. Additionally, there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs, and the Raptors fancy themselves deep and versatile enough to find plenty of rest for Leonard while still gunning for the top spot in the East.

That's particularly true if this is the version of Leonard the Raptors can count on when he does suit up, and there are reasons to believe he's still getting better.

With no back-to-backs over the last two weeks, Leonard's played in seven consecutive games, his longest active streak since the 2017 playoffs. During that stretch, he's averaged 29.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.7 steals, and a block on a true shooting percentage of 63.3, while logging 36.3 minutes per game and picking up an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award.

"(The game) is slowing down for me now, since it's 26 games in, and we're playing every other night," Leonard told reporters after Wednesday's win over Philly.

That's a scary thought for 29 other teams, as the Raptors have won 21 of 26 games with Leonard ranking fifth on the team in minutes played through nearly a third of the season.

How good might they be, and how much better can Leonard be, without any restrictions whatsoever? The Raptors are eager to find out. The rest of the league sounds like it already knows the answer.

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NBA's biggest stars marvel at rejuvenated Kawhi Leonard
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