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SportTick-tock: Toronto's Kawhi Leonard taking his game minute by minute

04:30  21 may  2019
04:30  21 may  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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TORONTO – All season, the Toronto Raptors were preoccupied with Kawhi Leonard ’ s minutes . Toronto had to make the game more difficult for Antetokounmpo. And Leonard did, with help from his teammates after Raptors coach Nick Nurse told the team Leonard would have more of the defensive

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Tick-tock: Toronto's Kawhi Leonard taking his game minute by minute© Provided by USA Today Sports Media Group LLC TORONTO – All season, the Toronto Raptors were preoccupied with Kawhi Leonard’s minutes.

For good reason, too. They wanted to restore his health following a discouraging year in San Antonio, they wanted to keep him injury-free and happy – a happy Kawhi means a better chance of signing free-agent Kawhi this summer – and they believed well-regulated minutes in the regular season could lead to games like Sunday's.

On a night when the Raptors needed every second from Leonard, he played a career-high 52 minutes with the toughest of playoff assignments: defend Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo on one end of the court and provide enough offense on the other end so that his team had a chance to beat Milwaukee.

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Right now, there might not be another player in the NBA capable of handling that assignment. He shot, clawed, limped, scored, dunked and defended his way to another memorable performance with 36 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and one block in Toronto’s 118-112 double overtime victory in Game 3.

It helped Toronto avoid what has been an insurmountable 3-0 deficit in NBA playoff history. Game 4 is Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

“It’s playoff basketball,” Leonard said. “I want to win. … We’re still here. Nobody wants to go home. We’re going to keep striving to reach that goal. That’s what I pride myself on, both ends of the floor.”

Toronto had to make the game more difficult for Antetokounmpo. And Leonard did, with help from his teammates after Raptors coach Nick Nurse told the team Leonard would have more of the defensive responsibility on Antetokounmpo.

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“It's a team deal with (Antetokounmpo), right,” Nurse said. “But again, Kawhi did a great job. You guys watched the game. He was up and not giving him quite as much runway to get flying off of.”

Antetokounmpo finished with 12 points on 5-for-16 shooting, 23 rebounds, seven assists and eight turnovers. It was his lowest-scoring game of this season’s playoffs.

“At the end of the day, I’ve got to not focus on who’s guarding me and just keep making plays,” Antetokounmpo said.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri gambled when he traded for Leonard last summer. In 2017-18, Leonard played just nine games and wanted out of San Antonio. Ujiri took a chance in hopes that he and the Raptors can convince Leonard to re-sign.

They accommodated Leonard, sitting him out in back-to-backs and playing him in just 60 of 82 games. He registered at least 40 minutes in a game just four times. Thirty-four minutes per game was his sweet spot.

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Specifically, reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is finally healthy and playing the best basketball of this career. Since fully recovering from a hand injury In the third quarter, he was tasked with guarding Stephen Curry, who had just gone on a 13-point explosion in two minutes . Curry didn't score again

All with the belief that he would be healthy and rested for the playoffs. And for games like this, which was his fifth playoff game this season with at least 40 minutes played.

“We started with a plan that we thought was really sensible because he hadn't played in like a year or something like that or played very little in the whole season beforehand,” Nurse said. “So we trimmed his minutes. We trimmed his games. We left him out of back-to-backs.

"You guys have heard his famous line that he said: these first 82 games are just practice. I thought we were going to see another gear out of this guy, and I think the load management and all that kind of stuff helped. And we'll see.”

Since Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Philadelphia, Leonard hasn’t been at his best offensively, at least efficiency-wise, shooting 43.5 percent in his past four games.

But when the Raptors have absolutely needed him – in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against Philadelphia and in the fourth quarter and overtimes of Game 3 against Milwaukee – he has delivered.

He scored 19 points in the fourth quarter and two overtimes, including eight points in the second overtime. He had a dunk to give Toronto a 108-105 lead, then a steal and dunk to extend Toronto’s advantage to 112-109 and then a driving bank shot to make it 114-110. Two more free throws accounted for the final two points of the game.

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It was his 10th game with at least 30 points in his team’s first 15 playoff games, tying him for third with such games in the past 20 seasons, trailing only Amar’e Stoudemire and LeBron James.

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How do you stop Leonard?

“I’m serious, you can’t,” Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton said. “He's going to have the ball in his hands the whole possession, most of the possessions. He's going to force his way into the lane. He's going to force his way into his spots.

"He's going to shoot with one, two, sometimes even three or four guys on him. He's going to hit some. He's going to miss some. I keep saying this over and over. He's a great player. You can't stop great players. You can only make it tough on them.”

Now, Leonard might not be 100 percent. After a layup in the first quarter, he favored his left leg and looked like he was in pain at other times.

“I’m good,” he said. “I’m just going to keep fighting. … Fifty-two minutes and it’s the playoffs. You definitely feel. When you play 30 minutes, you feel it. Just got to not worry about it and get my treatment and move on to the next one.”

One way or another with Leonard, it's all about his minutes.

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tick-tock: Toronto's Kawhi Leonard taking his game minute by minute

Related slideshow: 2019 NBA playoffs (Provided by imagn)

Tick-tock: Toronto's Kawhi Leonard taking his game minute by minute
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