Kawhi Leonard brought in the new year by scoring a career-best 45 points, leading the Toronto Raptors to a 122-116 win over the Utah Jazz on Tuesday.
With Kyle Lowry missing yet another game due to injury, Leonard put his team on his back and carried them to another victory — inching closer to the No. 1 spot in the eastern conference, currently occupied by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Leonard wasn’t just chucking up shots either. He was highly efficient from the field, shooting 16-for-22 and sinking 13 of his 17 free throws.
“You have to have a certain rhythm about yourself,” Leonard said. “Games like this, it is easy to make shots. I always enjoy the challenge when you miss your first couple and seeing whether you’re going to stay, or are you going to be mentally focused or confident in your shot.”
Confidence wasn’t an issue for the Raptors star, especially in the third quarter where he scored 19 points alone.
Leonard has never been the most exciting player to watch, but his basketball IQ is tremendous. On offense, he can finish at the rim with either hand, use post moves for his turnaround mid-range jumper and he’s a terrific free throw shooter at 84.8 percent.
“He scored in the post, he scored in isolations, he scored at the rim over Rudy [Gobert],” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We eventually started hitting him at half-court. The biggest thing was that we sent him to the line. Maybe we should have blitzed him sooner.”
What also makes him special is the fact that he’s fundamental in a way that’s uncommon in this era of basketball. He might’ve picked that trait up somewhere along the way when he and Tim Duncan were teammates.
With his return to San Antonio to face his former team just a couple days away, Leonard appears focused and is looking to have the last laugh.