At the top of the NBA’s Eastern Conference, they don’t care much for beauty.
The Celtics swung through Toronto, and a potential Eastern Conference Finals match-up featuring two superstars and at least two All Stars morphed into a war of attrition. The lead changed 13 times and the Raptors pulled it out in the end, 113-101.
Both teams employed a bevy of versatile, exchangeable wings who can shoot and create off the dribble on offense, while switching and swarming off late doubles and recovering on defense. It was what Celtics coach Brad Stevens called “skill-ball,” not small ball.
And that was the saving grace. It was a slugfest, and though both squads are still finding their defensive bearings, the game was a battle of expertise as much as it was brute force. It had an ugliness that demanded the talent on the court rise above it. Put simply: good defense, better offense.
In that context, it’s striking how easily the Raptors’ blockbuster acquisition, acquired in an offseason trade that sent hometown hero DeMar DeRozan packing, stepped into his role as the player that rose highest.
Kawhi Leonard is still a little rusty – a step slow in a few places, occasionally finding himself swarmed down low with no plan. It took him 25 shots to get 31 points, but he found a rhythm and took over in the second half.
While Gordon Hayward worked himself back from a broken leg that sidelined him last year and Kyrie Irving shook off the rust from March knee surgery, an equally rusty Leonard was a cut above the rest. He played with the indistinguishable, incomparable dint of superstardom, a force that that supersedes schemes, scouting, and style.
In fact, he thrived in the grime. His gangly fingertips put a stamp on the game in the opening defensive sequence, intercepting a crosscourt pass from Hayward, reminding the national TV audience why they called him The Claw. His mere presence induced Jaylen Brown to miss a pair of bunnies at the rim. He deflected passes and stripped brawny big men under the rim. Flanked by fellow former Spur Danny Green, he blocked Celtics wunderkind Jayson Tatum in transition.
Only the rugged survive against Stevens’ scheme, Brown’s imposing frame, Tatum’s height, and the positional awareness of Al Horford, the league’s smartest big man on switches. But Leonard matched their aggression. He muscled his way into the post against Brown, displaying the six years that separate them, and he was automatic when jostling against Hayward. Leonard can still bruise with the best of them, lowering his shoulder while his gaudy strength shifts opponents over like revolving doors on his way to the rim.
Late in the game, Tatum doubled-team Leonard from behind, where he couldn’t see him — a presumably smart move, if not for the the large, magnetic hands that allowed Leonard to retain possession.
“He can get a really good, on-balance shot just about any time he wants to,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.
Leonard sapped his fellow stars of their power by swiping the ball from their hands and lived to tell the tale without picking up a personal foul. He mouthed off at referees down the stretch and didn’t come close to picking up a technical foul. There it was. The real thing: superstardom in all its glamour and privilege.
It was one game, but it illuminated what the Raptors lacked before and validated the premise of the trade: they weren’t going to get very far with DeMar DeRozan leading the charge. It was, in fact, a calculation the Celtics made two years ago, trading folk hero Isiah Thomas for an upgrade at his position in Irving.
Leonard’s toughness, his ability to hang in the midst of wreckage, is an element this team lacked in the past. The Raptors have always hung their hats on playing hard, but when they got roughed up, they could rarely muster buckets. DeRozan historically shrunk in the presence of tough defenders like Paul George and LeBron James, and the Celtics’ wing talent pose similar challenges.
That’s part of the reason why the Raptors transitioned to a spread game last season. Catching up with the modern NBA was long overdue, of course, and they thrived in space. But when the game got ugly, so did their offense, reverting to plodding isolation plays that suited the opponent.
Leonard, though, is one of the best one-on-one players in the league, a man who constantly demands double-teams. He embraces the ugly productivity of the busted games they’ll play in the playoffs.
He also understands what it takes to thrive there. In an alternate universe, the Celtics would have ponied up the assets to acquire Leonard. They didn’t because they have a sound infrastructure and the talent to rule the future. That’s still true, but now Leonard’s presence on their direct rival puts a hitch in the present.
Leonard imposed his will for a day, but afterwards, he was placid -- maybe even a little disappointed.
“We played well and got stops when we needed to,” he said. “I just felt like we could have done better. They got a lot of wide open looks. With a great team like that, they’re not gonna always miss.”
Paying deference to history, Leonard added.
“They’re a great team. We want to get to that level they were at last year.”
He meant in the playoffs, and not the four-win advantage Toronto had in the regular season last year. Because ultimately, that’s why he’s here.