TORONTO — So much of this season for Kawhi Leonard has been spent on the topic of load management.
Well, load management went out the window Sunday night.
With his Toronto Raptors‘ season on the line, Leonard played a career-high 52 minutes — almost all of them coming after he landed awkwardly on a layup in the first quarter. And he put up his latest stellar line, finishing with 36 points, nine rebounds and five assists to lead Toronto to a 118-112 victory in double overtime against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The win got the Raptors back into the series, as they now trail 2-1 in this best-of-seven affair — thanks mostly to Leonard’s latest heroics, which came exactly a week after he kept Toronto’s season alive here with his miraculous buzzer-beater to close out the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the conference semifinals.
“He loves this game of basketball,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry told ESPN after Sunday’s contest. “That’s what that was. He loves basketball. To play hurt, play through anything to get wins, that’s what that proved tonight.”
The topic of just how hurt Leonard was never went away after he landed off-kilter in the first quarter and came back down the court hopping on one leg. It appeared at that time his left leg was bothering him — only for him to, far later in the tilt, grab at his right leg after he ran downcourt and skied for a massive left-handed fast-break slam with 3:13 remaining in the second overtime.
After the game, though, the Raptors downplayed any issues. Toronto coach Nick Nurse said he thought Leonard was “OK,” and Leonard himself dismissed any reason to expect him to miss time in this series.
“I’m good,” he said. “I’m just going to keep fighting. I’m going to be playing.”
He did admit that it took a toll on him to play those career-high minutes and drag the Raptors to victory.
“Definitely,” Leonard said, when asked if it felt like he had logged that much time. “It’s 52 minutes, and it’s the playoffs, so you definitely feel it. When you play 30 minutes, you feel it still.
“Just got to not worry about it and get my treatment and move onto the next one.”
When Lowry fouled out midway through the fourth quarter, it was fair to wonder if there would be a relevant “next one” at all, given that a loss would have put Toronto in an all-but-fatal 3-0 hole in the series.
The Raptors led for virtually all of regulation, and almost all of both overtimes, but did so while getting almost all of their points from five players: Leonard, Pascal Siakam (25), Marc Gasol (19), Norman Powell (19) and Lowry (11).
By the end of regulation, though, Lowry and Powell had both fouled out, leaving Nurse to scramble and play Fred VanVleet and Danny Green for the overtimes — during which each hit their first, and only, shots of the game, both from behind the 3-point line. (VanVleet was 1-for-11 from the field, and Green was 1-for-9.)
Lowry, meanwhile, spent at least half the time in his customary seat on the end of the bench, often doing anything but looking at the court as his teammates tried to keep their season alive without him.
“I wasn’t [watching],” Lowry told ESPN. “I was just trying to will the ball in and will their ball out. But when you believe in my teammates like I do, you’ve just got to support them and do everything you can possibly do.
“That’s the one thing about it. It f—ing sucked. But we won, so it really is all that matters.”
That the Raptors did triumph was, as usual, in large part down to Leonard. While Nurse didn’t change up his starting lineup, he did alter both rotations and defensive assignments — including having Leonard spend far more time on the NBA’s presumptive Most Valuable Player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, than he did in the first two games.
After defending him on just three shots through the first two games, Antetokounmpo went 1-for-9 and scored two points when guarded by Leonard in Game 3, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. When Antetokounmpo went up against anyone else, he was 4-for-7 and scored 10 points.
“Listen, I think Kawhi is the best two-way basketball player in the NBA,” Lowry told ESPN. “I personally believe that.
“And when you have a guy like that, who can do the things he can do defensively, and offensively, you put him on the best player when you need to.”
The Raptors needed to, and it worked. Antetokounmpo eventually fouled out in the second overtime trying to draw a charge on Siakam, ending his night with 12 points, 23 rebounds, seven assists, four blocks and eight turnovers.
It also was a bounce-back performance from Siakam (25 points, 11 rebounds and three steals) and Gasol (16 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks) after both had struggled in the first two games of the series.
It was Siakam’s two missed free throws at the end of regulation, however, that gave Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton a chance to tie the game in the dying seconds and send it to overtime.
When the game was over, though, and the victory in hand, Leonard wasn’t tired enough to avoid giving his teammate a hard time.
“[I told him] ‘Damn near played an hour of basketball tonight,'” Leonard said with a smile. “He was like, ‘My bad, Kawhi. I’ll make those two free throws next time.'”
On this night, though, it was no harm, no foul for Toronto. That’s because, for the latest time this season, and the second time in a week, Leonard willed the Raptors to a win.
Now, they’ll just need him to do so again three times in the next four games if they are to make it to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
“I just want to win,” Leonard said. “That’s it. Nobody wants to go home. We want to keep striving and reach that goal, and that’s it.
“That’s why I pride myself on [playing] both ends of the floor, and this is what happens.”