Game 2 of the regular season felt like Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, with the Raptors delivering an electric 108-101 win over the Celtics on Friday in just about as exciting a game as you can possibly ask for at this point in the season. It wasn't the most well-played game on either side, particularly early, but the competition was off the charts. Toronto's defense was nasty. Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry were both terrific. Danny Green was a game-high plus-25 in 32 minutes. But one player stood above everything and everyone else: Kawhi Leonard.
The line is impressive: 31 points and 10 boards, a perfect 9-for-9 from the free-throw line. But the terrifying thing is that Leonard still looked rusty in places. His shot wasn't falling to start the game. He finished 10 of 25 from the field. Two games into the season he's already in MVP form and, yet, he's clearly going to get better. Knowing this, as early as it is to start talking about these things, you can't help but let your imagination run on just how good this Raptors squad could be.
Even as Leonard struggled from the field in the early going, he was getting to any spot he wanted. With ease. Once they started dropping, he scored from all over the floor in just about every way imaginable. He hit pull-up threes. He went to work in the post, patiently daring the Celtics to double, cashing 15-foot fadeaways when they didn't. He got to the rim. He went coast to coast in transition. Not having watched him play in real games for so long, you forget how strong he is with the ball. The way he can just bully defenders off their spot with a nudge. Like this:
You hear about guys having quick first steps, but with Kawhi, it's more about his power final steps. The way he finishes moves. That clip you just watched is a perfect example. He didn't beat Gordon Hayward with his first step. He merely got leverage, but it was the finishing step, that last power dribble that discarded Hayward and turned a contested shot into a bunny.
In this next clip, Leonard is by Jaylen Brown, but rather than get the ball up on the glass quickly, as a lot of players would, he takes one more power dribble to increase separation and turn a finesse layup into a dunk.
This next one is my favorite. First Kawhi slithers through the pick-and-roll and gets going downhill, but Al Horford has his chest in front of him the whole way ... until Leonard takes that last power step and dribble to separate and go up uncontested.
For good measure, Kawhi dialed from distance as well:
You hear about three-level scorers -- the Durants, the Currys, of course LeBron. Kawhi is right there with all of them. I still think some people fail to realize this, thinking of him more as a lock-down defender who's become a good offensive player. No. He's not a good offensive player. He's a great one.
When you add this kind of three-level scorer to the Raptors, who simply weren't this versatile offensively with DeMar DeRozan, and then you factor in the defense (both Kawhi's individually and the Raptors' collectively), well, let's just say Friday night was a forceful reminder that the Celtics have company atop the Eastern Conference. Both these teams are going to be better by season's end, and if we are lucky enough to see them in a conference-finals matchup, it's going to be incredible -- particularly because as opposed to the winner of the East the last couple years, both teams already feel like they would be capable of at least pushing the winner of the West to their limit. Again, I know that's getting way ahead of things, but with Kawhi looking like this, it's kind of hard to not let your imagination run wild on how good this (suddenly exciting!) Toronto team can be.