Nick Nurse, the Raptors’ coach, walked through the back hallways of Scotiabank Arena late Sunday night and headed toward his family, who had waited through all 58 minutes of Toronto’s 118-112 win over Milwaukee.
Like everyone, he was exhausted after Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Raptors’ season on the line in a two-overtime epic. But the play of his star Kawhi Leonard was enough to stop him and delay the rest of his night for a few minutes.
“That,” Nurse said, stopping in his tracks, “was something else.”
For 52 minutes 8 seconds of basketball — “I damn near played an hour,” the Raptors forward told teammate Pascal Siakam — Leonard proved what the Raptors have figured out, what the Clippers know and what the San Antonio Spurs couldn’t hold on to.
No matter what, this guy’s worth it.
If it means the public mocks your “load management” when Leonard sits one end of a back-to-back, so be it. If it means you lose a game here or there in the 82 leading up to the postseason because you’re watching his minutes, do it.
If it means you send executives across the Canadian border to watch Leonard repeatedly, like the Clippers have this season, get the passport out. If it means taking a drive to Milwaukee from the draft combine in Chicago on the slight chance it helps you sign Leonard this summer in free agency, buckle up and head north on I-94 West.
With his team down 2-0 in the series, Leonard was the first line of defense on Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, fighting over and through screens trying to keep Milwaukee’s best offensive option from picking up steam. On offense, he carried the load too, scoring at least 30 points for the 10th time this postseason.
All those minutes, all the time guarding the NBA’s likely most valuable player, the 36 points and nine rebounds, “it’s the kind of two-way performance you write home about,” Nurse told The Times.
Antetokounmpo scored only 12 points, his fewest in a playoff game since April 30, 2015. He grabbed 23 rebounds and handed out seven assists, but made only five of 16 shots from the field and walked off the court early in the second overtime after fouling out.
“They changed their matchup. I tried not to think about it too much, but whenever I tried to make a play, I saw that they were showing bodies, they were sending a second guy there,” Antetokounmpo said. “But at the end of the day, I’ve got to not focus on who’s guarding me and just keep making plays.”
Leonard and Nurse have declared stopping Antetokounmpo is a “five-man” assignment, and after the win, that doesn’t change. But it starts with a one-man wall.
“I mean, it’s a team deal with him,” Nurse said. “But again, Kawhi did a great job. You guys watched the game. He was up and not giving him much of a runway to get flying off of. But so were the other guys that ended up on him in a switch or in different parts of the game. They were all a little bit more locked in. We took steps forward to get physical.”
And while Game 3 was a mental test for the Raptors — a 3-0 series deficit never has been overcome in the NBA — people left the building marveling at what they just saw physically.
Early in the first quarter, Leonard leaked out in transition and took off for an easy dunk. But along the way, he tweaked something on his lower left side and limped back down the court. He tried repeatedly to stretch, shake or rub the discomfort away. And for the rest of the night, he didn’t look quite right.
Still, Leonard’s minutes piled up because for Toronto to win, they needed to keep being logged.
“I’ve been here before,” he said. “It’s playoff basketball. You want to win.”
He’s worth it because that desire helped him find another gear in the biggest moments, with teammates like Kyle Lowry fouling out and others like Danny Green going through brutal shooting nights.
Early in the final overtime, Leonard got the ball in transition and pushed ahead. He planted near the dotted half-circle inside the foul line and split a pair of Bucks defenders for a dunk, causing Milwaukee to call time out.
He walked slowly to the bench, struggling to find the energy to finally sit. When he finally did, he instantly slumped over.
“He was exhausted,” Nurse said.
He scored six more points in those final minutes, grabbing a key offensive rebound and fast break-starting steal along the way.
As Sunday was getting close to becoming Monday in Toronto, Leonard emerged from postgame treatment and slumped in the chair before his locker.
He took deep breaths and sighs as he bent and tied his sneakers before getting up to talk to the press, but asked if he was injured, simply replied “I’ll be fine.”
“I just want to win. That’s it,” he said. “We’re here. Nobody wants to go home.”