Then there were four
There was a fellow by the name of Dale Ellis who played in the NBA when I was a teenager. One of my friends had a poster of him; he was holding his finger to his lip while watching someone attempt a dunk on a basket outside a window. The poster called Ellis “The Silent Assassin.” I suppose because he was really good but never talked about it. I am not sure if Ellis was actually the silent assassin (he was a really good shooter, I do remember that) but I think Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard is now. Is there a better player in the NBA that no one ever talks about? Or, maybe the better question is, is there a better player in the NBA that never talks?
Leonard let his shooting do his talking for him Sunday in the semi-final round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers. Not only did he score 41 points, he hit a buzzer-beating, pull-up jump shot that hit the rim not once, not twice, but at least three times before finally falling through the net to win Game 7 of their series and send the Raptors on to the Eastern Conference finals. I am not sure it was exactly a coming out party for Leonard. People who follow the game know how good he is. But does the casual basketball fan even think about him? There’s been plenty of talk of him joining LeBron James in Los Angeles when this season ends, and if that were to happen it would certainly elevate his name into the lofty stratosphere only a select few players occupy. But it should not take a move like that to get him into that conversation. Leonard is already one of the best players on the planet, whether anyone notices or not.
I would be remiss if I did not talk about the fact the Milwaukee Bucks defeated Leonard and company in the first game of the Eastern Conference final. While it does not have the flash of the Golden State-Portland series, the showdown in the east should be a good one. Giannis Antetokounmpo is another one of the best players in the NBA who the casual fan is probably not that aware of. It will be interesting to see what Kawhi can do against him in the next six games.
Then there’s the marquee match-up featuring the defending champs and the upstart Blazers. Steph Curry is there, as is Klay Thompson, maybe Kevin Durant will get over his injury and show up at some point as well. Portland is countering with Damian Lillard who I’ve already written about in this space. The Blazers are down by a game and will have to steal one in Oakland if they are going to take the series. This might be the series most people are watching and the Warriors alone have more household names than the Raptors and Bucks combined, but I am not sure that makes it the better series. I honestly doubt this thing goes past the sixth game, while the other one seems destined to be settled in Game 7, maybe even on another multiple-bounce, roll around the rim, buzzer beater from the greatest player most people have never heard of.