Leonard showing his worth
Kawhi Leonard’s already got a ring. Not just that, he’s got an NBA Finals MVP award. And he’s playing at a level that could take him to another, if the Raptors are good enough to go there with him, that is.
The former Spur is averaging just under 34 points per night through this series. And that’s with totals of “just” 21 and 29 in the last two games, the second partly due to the Raptors romping home as 36-point winners and Leonard not needing to carry the team over the line.
In putting Toronto on the verge of a first Conference Finals in four years, he is also justifying the risks his current team have taken since last season’s whitewash at the hands of the Cavs.
Despite topping the East last season, the Raptors only enhanced their reputation as postseason lightweights when they crashed out to Cleveland – think Tottenham before last Wednesday night (RIP Ajax, *sob*). They fired their coach and traded a good player, DeMar DeRozan, for a possible all-time great in Kawhi to make the leap to a title.
That move could come at a bigger price because Leonard’s not committed to staying in Canada beyond this season – the Clippers have been consistently linked with the implacable 27-year-old’s signature – so Toronto could end up with one season of wonder and not much else.
Prior to 2017, few would’ve expected a player so lacking in apparent ego to be involved in any such moves. In fact, Leonard looked like he was grown in a lab at the request of San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich because he combined lack of ego with incredible talent, brutal efficiency at both ends of the court, and is a relentless competitor.
But things went awry in West Texas. The Spurs were left with little option but to trade a cast-iron league MVP-talent player at his peak if they didn’t want him to walk when his contract expired in 2019.
The Raptors made the bet they can win with him this year and get him to re-sign. A win tonight will keep that dream alive a little longer.
Sixers can’t count on stars
The Sixers have made big moves of their own, though do not look as likely benefit.
Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have given them a starting line-up that, on paper, looks as dangerous as any in the league. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and JJ Redick were already in situ and had looked threatening last season before fizzling out against Boston.
But this series has seen them fail to deliver on the promise. Joel Embiid averaged over 27 points per game in the regular season but has scored more than 17 just once in this series. Health issues and Marc Gasol have combined to limit the center to just one big scoring game.
Controlling the Cameroonian has allowed the Raptors to compete against a team loaded with starting talent but light on experience playing together.
This game ultimately will come down to Embiid’s unpredictable power versus Leonard’s control and championship experience. I’d always rather be on Leonard’s side. The Raptors have home advantage as the higher seeds, but depth of talent in the starting five is clearly in Philly’s favour.
Their record in Toronto isn’t though. They’ve won just once in the last 16 visits to Canada, and Toronto are 12-6 in their last 18 games on the spread, so the home team -6 would be the play on the spread at [1.92], though the stronger trends are on the total.
Five of the last seven between these two have gone under and Toronto are 9-of-12 in the same direction in the last dozen games, so fewer than 209 points appeals at 10/11. Also, given this is exactly th kind of game Leonard was signed for, the over on his personal total of 32.5 points is interesting as a prop bet at 10/11.
Nuggets can shine through
Portland Trail Blazers @ Denver Nuggets
Live on Sky Sports Arena
Earlier in the evening, another back-and-forth series finishes with game seven in Denver. For the Nuggets, it’s the second series in a row to go the distance, while Portland were more clinical in their opening series against the Thunder, ending it in five.
The prize on offer for the winner is a Conference Finals spot opposite the Warriors, a result that’s about as good a return as either of these teams could’ve hoped for at the season’s start.
Denver missed the playoffs in ninth last season, but have maximised the playmaking ability of center Nikola Jokic in this campaign to take the second seed in the tougher conference despite higher-profile challengers and bigger names elsewhere. The seven-foot Serb is an assist per night short of averaging a triple-double for this series so far, with 26 points and 14 rebounds to his name in each game so far.
Portland have regularly made the postseason but failed to deliver on their blistering runs of form when the playoffs began. Their star guard Damian Lillard has played this year’s knockout phase like he means to put that reputation right. He’s notched 27 points per game in this series as these two teams traded games home and away to get to game seven.
Denver, as the home side, are favourites, and the Blazers might wonder what could’ve been were Jusuf Nurkic healthy to counter their main man Jokic. You’d have to fancy Denver to come through here, especially are they’re 7-1 in their last eight against Portland at home, but the 5.5 spread is a harder call given how competitive the series has been.
Instead, I would take a look at the total of 212 and play the over at 10/11, because these two are both have strong form on that front in the playoffs. Most compelling though is the fact that nine of the last ten between these two have finished higher than the projected total. That’s a trend to follow.
Source: US Sports