TORONTO — If "Playoff Kawhi" was a superhero, his most lethal superpower would probably be his ability to sap the sheer will out of his opponents.
Sidelined by a serious quadriceps injury last season, Kawhi Leonard hadn't made a playoff appearance in two years. But his reputation for treating the regular season as 82 practices, and knack for cranking his game up another notch when the playoffs tipped off was legendary. Fans couldn't wait to get a glimpse of "Playoff Kawhi."
And through five games of the post-season, the Toronto Raptors star has certainly lived up to his billing.
"That killer instinct . . . the biggest thing that I'd seen in the last series (against Orlando) was you could see him just taking those guys' spirits away, breaking those guys' spirits and no matter what they really did it didn't phase him or affect him, he was able to break their will so to speak," said guard Fred VanVleet. "That's what superstars do."
The Raptors host the Philadelphia 76ers — a team Leonard has never lost to in the post-season — on Saturday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Leonard has never lost to the Sixers, a win streak that spans 13 games. The 2014 Finals MVP averaged 30.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, four steals and 2.7 assists in three wins over Philly this regular-season. Toronto's only loss to the Sixers was a 126-101 blowout at Wells Fargo Centre on Dec. 22 in which Leonard didn't play.
Leonard's proven talent as a big-game player, and his ability to shut down Raptors killer LeBron James in the 2014 Finals, were major reasons Toronto acquired the six-foot-nine small forward in last summer's blockbuster deal that sent DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio.
The Raptors don't have James to contend with this post-season. Instead, Leonard will be focused on halting Sixers guard Ben Simmons.
The Australian has struggled against Leonard. While he averaged 3.4 turnovers per game this season, he coughed up the ball 6.5 times when playing Leonard.
"He's a freak," Simmons told reporters after playing against Leonard for the first time. "His hands are huge. He's got long arms. He's a great defender."
While Leonard's reputation preceded him in Toronto, Raptors coach Nick Nurse said he's been even better than advertised.
"I'm not sure I've seen a guy be able to decide he wants to make a defensive play and then go do it," Nurse said. "He finds ways to make big plays at the defensive end — whether it's just with pressure or shooting the gap or deflecting a ball or just going and taking it from somebody. Those are my favourite ones, when he just decides there's a guy and he goes and attacks him and tries to take it from him.
"It's not easy to do and he can do it once in a while and it’s pretty intimidating too."
Kyle Lowry agreed.
"I knew he was good but seeing him every day and every game and what he can do defensively is crazy, it's pretty cool," Lowry said.
A big part of Leonard's talent can't be measured by stats. The 27-year-old plays with the emotion of an assassin. Whether it's knocking down shots or grabbing steals, he does it with a death stare. And his ability to remain even-keeled has been contagious.
"He doesn't change (into) a masked man. He just changes in his mentality," Lowry said. "His approach is really, really focused and I think we as a team have taken a lot from him.
"There's no highs or lows. Just going straight forward. I think that is the one thing he has brought here, just straight focus."
With both players sitting out chunks of the season, Leonard for load management and Lowry with a back injury, they continue to develop chemistry.
Leonard is enjoying his partnership with Lowry.
"You start to see how people are," he said. "When you're not on a team and you're just playing them for one game and you're not saying much, you don't get to know a guy when you're in and out of a city. So being able to be around him and see his sense of humour. . . Then for basketball, obviously being on the floor and seeing what he sees, I'm able to talk to him about plays and stuff about the opponent. We've been able to tap into each other's brain and get to know each other.
"He's a smart guy, a smart player. He invests a lot of time in getting better and preparing for that next team."
While the Raptors had a winning regular-season record against Philly, Lowry said all that goes out in the window when they face off in the playoffs.
"Means nothing. Means nothing," he said. "We will be prepared. This is a new series, a new game. We go out there and lace 'em up, run up and down the hardwood and play basketball."
Game 2 is Monday in Toronto. Then the series shifts to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press