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The Raptors Are Elite—and They’re Not Even at Their Best Yet

Kawhi Leonard turned in his best performance of the season to outlast the Philadelphia 76ers and prove that Toronto may be a cut above even the best challengers in the East

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard dunks the ball Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The defining Kawhi Leonard highlight in a night full of Kawhi Leonard highlights came from when he used just one Klaw (naturally). With four minutes left in the fourth quarter in Wednesday night’s 113-102 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, Leonard snagged a defensive rebound over Ben Simmons and sprinted toward his own basket. Joel Embiid tried to keep stride, but the Toronto star left him behind at the Raptors’ free throw line. As Leonard took flight, he passed by a swipe from Jimmy Butler. He went by each of Philly’s Big Three for a single, game-sealing one-handed dunk. In that moment, it seemed like the Raptors had left the Sixers behind in the race for Eastern Conference supremacy.

Toronto entered Wednesday with the best record in the East (and the best record in the NBA overall). But the Sixers were on the rise, going 8-2 with Butler in the lineup. Philly may not have had the same fast start as Milwaukee or Toronto, but with the addition of Butler, suddenly it was one star up on the Raps (Leonard and Kyle Lowry) and two on the Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo).

Keeping count of elite players is pointless if one of them is Leonard, who, when healthy, has been nothing short of a top-five player in recent years. The former Spur has been great already this season; coming into the night, he was averaging 25.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, and three assists. But it still seemed like he wasn’t at full speed. He’s missed six games this season and has yet to play in both ends of a back-to-back as the Raps play it safe with his troublesome hamstring.

But Leonard has shown more signs of being that top-five player of late; Wednesday, he came alive. Kawhi arguably played his best game since joining Toronto, finishing with 36 points in 35 minutes on 24 shots, along with nine boards, five steals, a block, and an assist.

The Raptors as a whole struggled on offense; they shot worse from the field and worse from 3 than Philly. Serge Ibaka chipped in 18 points, but no other starter surpassed seven, including Lowry, who was 1-for-7 from 3 on the night. But the biggest advantage the Raptors have is a roster deep enough to match up with anybody. They needed a big body to throw at Embiid, and sometimes-starter Jonas Valanciunas put up a season-high 26 points off the bench. They also needed someone to carry the load on offense, and Leonard came through with a superstar-level performance.

These types of high-scoring games are becoming closer to the standard for Leonard in Toronto. Last week he dropped 37 points on the Steph Curry–less Warriors, though he had 44 minutes and an overtime period to do so. And Saturday, he had 34 points in 37 minutes. Both were part of an eight-game winning streak that ended in a tight loss to Denver on Monday night.

The Raptors would’ve remained at the top of the East regardless of Wednesday’s outcome; that’s how good they’ve been this season, even with their best player in and out of the lineup. But with the win, the Raps only furthered their case that they may be a cut above even the biggest challengers in the conference—and that they still might not have hit their ceiling. Toronto has been a machine this season, and part of that may be due to the fact the bulk of this team won 59 games just last season. But it has still played only 26 regular-season games with Leonard as the first option and Nick Nurse, an assistant under Dwane Casey last season, as the head coach. As much consistency as the Raptors had coming into the season, plugging in a different superstar isn’t always a clean fit, especially given how long DeMar DeRozan occupied Leonard’s spot in the starting lineup.

“The definition of insanity,” Masai Ujiri, the Raptors president of basketball operations, said before the game on ESPN’s The Jump, “is doing something over and over again.” He repeated the phrase in a between-quarters sideline interview during the game. In years past, Toronto would enter a season with the same core, hoping for something new. But Ujiri’s bold offseason trade has created a different team and a different existential question: Just how far can Leonard take the Raptors?