PHILADELPHIA — It was all on display Sunday afternoon, the complete Kawhi Leonard show, and why it was worth staging in Toronto this season, even with forbidding odds of there ever being another.
With the Raptors facing their most crucial test in their quest to persuade Leonard to re-sign with them as a free agent this summer, Leonard erupted for 39 points, including a game-icing 3-pointer as Toronto evened the Eastern Conference semifinals against the 76ers with a 101-96 victory at Wells Fargo Center.
Unlike Game 3, when Leonard shouldered the burden nearly alone in a lopsided defeat, he had just enough help this time, and from the position — center — from which it was least expected.
Marc Gasol, obliterated by Joel Embiid in Game 3, outscored the 76ers’ young star, 16-11, and his backup, Serge Ibaka, added 12 points. Embiid, who was said to be under the weather, played a lethargic 35 minutes and was guilty of several miscues at both ends of the floor down the stretch.
Kyle Lowry, also under pressure after playing poorly in Game 3, added 14 points and 7 assists, but it was Leonard, who also had 14 rebounds and 5 assists, who carried his team to the finish and returned home-court advantage to the Raptors.
“It was pretty obvious that we needed some punch from around the roster,” Raptors Coach Nick Nurse said.
Jimmy Butler led the 76ers with 29 points and J. J. Redick had 19, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with the Raptors. Game 5 will be played on Tuesday night in Toronto.
The experiment by Masai Ujiri, the Raptors’ president, to bring in Leonard as a rental player was a bold and calculated risk, but far from foolish when factoring in the limited ceiling of DeMar DeRozan, the pivotal player who left Toronto in last summer’s deal with San Antonio. Ujiri surmised that DeRozan, though a fine player, would never be the leading man on a true championship contender, and that Leonard’s availability, even with no assurance of keeping him beyond this season, represented a rare opportunity for a team north of the border to acquire one.
The balance of power in either N.B.A. conference has not historically shifted easily. But with contemporary superstars increasingly exploiting free agency while willing to accept less guaranteed money to do so, the possibility of teams rising from middling status (Los Angeles Clippers) or even the depths of competitive despair (Knicks) has made the postseason as much a proclamation on next season as it is on the current one.
This is good news for those who have complained that the sport has become too predictable, especially after four consecutive years of Golden State and Cleveland clashing in the finals, with the Warriors winning three times and being heavy favorites to add a fourth title in five years next month.
The contradiction is that some of the folks who have complained about the seeming inevitability have also objected to such game changers as LeBron James and Kevin Durant embracing a self-determinative career journey without loyalty to any uniform or city. Leonard, too, was criticized for strong-arming his way out of San Antonio, a city which believed he would, like Tim Duncan, never seek a divorce from one of the most familial franchises in professional sports.
Ujiri didn’t naïvely bring Leonard to Toronto. There was no set of prescribed circumstances — not even winning a championship, as Leonard has already won a ring with the Spurs and still wanted out — that ensured his signature on a five-year contract. And while he has said little about his ultimate goals and hinted at none of his feelings behind a face made for the highest poker stakes, there has been no shortage of speculation that Leonard, a Los Angeles native, wants to go home.
Reporters have tried all season to induce a sign of intent, with no success. Ibaka was the latest to pop the question when he had Leonard as a guest last month on a cooking show he stars.
“Bro, are you coming back?” Ibaka asked, out of the blue.
“What kind of question is that?” Leonard said.
After Ibaka offered to ask it again, in Spanish, Leonard shut down the conversation, saying, “We’ll see after the season is up.”
Living in the moment on Sunday, the Raptors had hardly abandoned hope, after promising to bring the energy and effort befitting a classic series swing game. Reflecting the urgency, forward Pascal Siakam was in the starting lineup despite being listed as doubtful with a calf injury sustained in Game 3. Lowry, a veteran point guard, came out looking for — and hitting — his shot after taking responsibility for the losses in Games 2 and 3 and promising help for Leonard, saying, “I’m not putting it on nobody else but me.”
Lowry scored 5 of the Raptors’ first 7 points, hitting a 3-point shot and scoring on a hard drive to the lane. But it was really the Raptors’ defense, contesting every 76er venturing to the rim, that most accounted for an early 22-11 lead.
Far from his Game 3 dominance, Embiid didn’t score a field goal until nearly four minutes into the second quarter. He was more content to set high screens to free jump shooters and locate cutters inside. But while the Raptors never trailed in the half, Lowry cooled off, Siakam missed all seven of his shots, and the 76ers crept to 47-45 at the half.
The second half was tight, tense, and had the feeling of an old-fashioned Eastern Conference scrum.
“A grind-it-out affair,” Nurse called it.
In the moment, Leonard pulled the Raptors back from the edge of their season. Just don’t ask him about the next one.