But a frenzied fourth quarter that featured some vintage Leonard, timely shot-making from a feisty, young Orlando Magic squad and a couple of late miscues, produced a 104-101 Orlando upset of Toronto in Game 1. Despite executing a bold trade for one of the game's most accomplished stars, the Raptors find themselves trailing another first-round series.
From the opening tip, Leonard stood as Toronto's bellwether. As he dazzled with an efficient, 11-point first quarter in which he was perfect from the field and flawless defensively, Toronto appeared to be en route to a workmanlike victory befitting of a well-seasoned 2-seed against a young underdog just thrilled to be playing playoff basketball. When Leonard went scoreless in the second -- 0-for-5, his worst shooting quarter as a Raptor -- his team coughed up a 30-9 run and at one point trailed by 16. With Leonard as their fulcrum, the Raptors assembled their best defensive stretch of the game in the third quarter.
Then came the fourth, with the Raptors in an achingly familiar spot -- nip and tuck in the opening game of a series they're supposed to win. Drawing historic parallels to teams with vastly different personnel, playing styles, coaches and schemes has always been an overwrought exercise, but pattern recognition is a funny thing to those steeped in history.
Toronto acquired Leonard, an NBA Finals MVP, to alter that course. He is a player steeped in the glory of the postseason, imported from an organization in San Antonio that minimized the regular season before it was fashionable. In early March, during a stretch when Leonard was resting about every third game, Leonard referred to the regular season as, effectively, 82 practices. "Playoffs is when it's time to lace them up," he said. The quote was further evidence that the most guarded and taciturn voices are often the most revealing.
The comment also represented Leonard's most profound appeal to Toronto. Mastery of the regular season doesn't mean what it used to for the Raptors. Postseason glory stands as a stubborn obstacle for an organization that has endured playoff disappointment for five years running, but you'd never know it by listening to Leonard.
When asked Friday if his experience in San Antonio would help the Raptors get over the hump, Leonard replied, "What hump?" The collective memory, the aspirations built on years of heartbreak, the fatal collisions with LeBron James -- none of it rates for Leonard. And that could be very useful for the Toronto Raptors.
For much of the fourth quarter, when he checked back in with 6:43 left and the Raptors leading by four points, Leonard fulfilled that hope. When Magic forward Aaron Gordon hit from distance, Leonard responded with a drive and a fadeaway on Gordon. And when the game crossed the two-minute mark in regulation, Leonard looked as if he had seized control with the kind of sequence that only a handful of NBA players can orchestrate at will.
Leonard stepped back and drained a 3-pointer off the dribble to tie the score at 99-99, then defended Gordon on the opposite end, inducing an off-balanced jumper. With his big right hand, Leonard snatched the rebound, which propelled his solo flight down the floor with the score tied. Kawhi sized up Gordon, one of the game's most impressive athletic specimens, then attacked him with a left-handed dribble. Leonard pulled up just short of the lane, elevated and nailed his flat jumper over Gordon to give the Raptors a lead with just over a minute left.
Augustin 3 gives Magic late edge
After Marc Gasol misses the go-ahead 3-pointer, D.J. Augustin takes it to the other end and sinks the game-winning 3-pointer for the Magic.
As the Magic called timeout and the crowd erupted, the gambit of trading DeMar DeRozan for only a single guaranteed year of Leonard rushed into sharp focus. When the Raptors made the deal, they held no certainty of Leonard's condition after missing all but nine games of the 2017-18 season due to tendinopathy in his right quad, a mysterious injury whose plan of treatment drove a wedge between Leonard and the Spurs. They were not assured by Leonard that he'd remain in Toronto long term.
Yet the Raptors were assured what Leonard could do on both ends of the floor when big games hung in the balance. The last two Finals MVPs who changed teams in their primes delivered a title to their new employer, and before Leonard suffered the injury, he was indomitable.
That's why Leonard and the Raptors pursued the most aggressive load management program ever devised in the NBA. Leonard played in not a single back-to-back during the regular season, topping out at 60 games and 2,040 minutes to ensure his health for the Raptors' postseason run. Leonard is, in the language of sports scientists, one of basketball's most high-output, high-intention athletes, the kind of player whose every move is performed with uncommon magnitude and at great frequency. He's a machine that needs careful servicing, which Leonard and the Raptors cooperated to perform this season with a comprehensive performance program.
"I think about all the hard work I put in, just being happy to be able to play that first game," Leonard said Saturday. "Feeling good -- way better than I was."
If not for the 48th minute of play Saturday, the Raptors would be celebrating that recovery after a 25-point effort on 18 field goal attempts. But the smallest athlete on the floor, Magic point guard D.J. Augustin, reversed the outcome with the game's final two field goals. The first, a driving, acrobatic layup after turning the corner on Danny Green, pulled the Magic even.
After an empty possession by the Raptors, Augustin, one of the league's craftier pick-and-roll practitioners, received a high screen from his preferred dance partner, Orlando center Nikola Vucevic. The Raptors countered with two elite defenders in Leonard and Marc Gasol -- another reminder that the Raptors' new model is loaded with experienced stoppers all over the floor.
But at a moment that produced what Augustin would call the biggest shot of his career, he encountered no resistance as he dribbled left behind the screen -- not Leonard fighting over Vucevic's screen with his long reach, and not Gasol stepping out on a switch.
"Our coverage was to get over the top of the screen and have Marc be up and help on that, and then stay home," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. "It looked like Kawhi thought it was a switch and went under to hold up Vucevic, and Marc was still in the up position but not the switch position -- so it gave him the room to get it off."
The Raptors were able to get Leonard a reasonably clean look at tying the score after inbounding the ball with 3.5 seconds left, but Leonard fired an air ball that fell out of bounds.
In past years, a sense of foreboding would envelop Toronto after a Game 1 loss, but there wasn't much detectable anxiety postgame. Kyle Lowry's scoreless 0-for-7 performance was taken in stride (in classic Lowry fashion, he led the Raptors at plus-11, the only starter in positive territory), as was the Magic's 14-for-29 outing from beyond the arc. Augustin's exploits were the product of chance ("It's always somebody different, and he had a good game," Lowry said), as were the Raptors' struggles from distance ("We got some good looks" -- nearly every member of the Toronto roster and staff).
Perhaps that's a measure of Leonard's value, the luxury of knowing a closer with credentials is on the scene. You can take losses in stride, even in the postseason, with the comfort that probabilities will correct fluky outcomes. A Game 1 loss that might have triggered panic is now merely a product of chance, correctable by those who know a thing or two.
"It's the playoffs, you're going to go up and down," Leonard said. "Towards the end of the game, they made their shots in the corner, and we missed some shots down the stretch."