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On Pro Basketball: The Future Is Uncertain, but Kawhi Leonard is Clearly the Raptors’ Present

PHILADELPHIA — It was all on display, the complete Kawhi Leonard show, and why it was worth staging in Toronto this season, even against ominous odds of there ever being another.

The Raptors on Sunday were facing their most challenging test in their bid for a deep playoff run and, in the process, to persuade Leonard to sign with them as a free agent this summer. Whatever Leonard’s long-term intentions may be, losing to facilitate an early escape is obviously not part of the plan.

Leonard is already in the conversation of the best two-way players in the N.B.A., and his ceiling keeps rising. In Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he erupted for 39 points, including a step-back, game-icing 3-pointer as the shot clock was winding down, and the Raptors evened the series by defeating the 76ers, 101-96, at Wells Fargo Center.

“Backbreaking,” Brett Brown, the 76ers’ coach, called Leonard’s shot, converted over the 7-foot Joel Embiid with 61 seconds remaining and the Raptors clinging to a 91-90 lead.

Unlike in Game 3, when Leonard shouldered the burden nearly alone in a lopsided defeat, the star forward had just enough help this time, especially from the position — center — that was a hot mess in Game 3. Marc Gasol, who was obliterated by Embiid in Game 3, this time outscored the 76ers’ young star, 16-11.

Embiid texted Brown early in the morning, saying he had flulike symptoms and had barely slept. After sneezing his way through a pregame film session, he managed to play 35 minutes but was guilty of several sloppy miscues in the final five and a half minutes. He missed two free-throws, was stripped of the ball on one possession and traveled on another. Just before Leonard’s 3-pointer, Embiid missed a contested shot at the rim that would have given the 76ers the lead.

Health issues aside, the differences between Embiid and Leonard have been stark in this series. Embiid is a major talent but difficult to project performance-wise, game to game. Leonard in the playoffs and especially in this series has been unstoppable, averaging 38 points on 62 percent shooting.

“The stuff he can do to create his own shots is Kobe-like — he’s so gifted,” Brown said comparing Leonard to Kobe Bryant. Brown acknowledged that when double-teamed, Leonard also found Gasol and Kyle Lowry for open looks, notching 5 assists to go with his 13-for-20 shooting and 14 rebounds.

Of course, these games will only haunt the Raptors if Leonard does not submit to Toronto’s metropolitan charms in July.

The experiment by Masai Ujiri, the Raptors’ president, to trade with San Antonio for Leonard was a bold, calculated risk, but far from foolish because Ujiri correctly surmised that DeRozan, though a fine player, would never be the leading man on a true championship contender. Leonard’s availability, even with no assurance of signing him, represented a rare opportunity for a team north of the border to acquire such a leading man.

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Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, who was said to be unwell, struggled to keep up with Toronto’s Marc Gasol.CreditMitchell Leff/Getty Images

The balance of power in either N.B.A. conference has not historically shifted easily. But with contemporary superstars increasingly exploiting free agency while willing to accept less guaranteed money to do so, the possibility of teams rising from middling status (Los Angeles Clippers) or even the depths of competitive despair (Knicks) has made the postseason as much a proclamation on next season as it is on the current one.

This is good news for those who have complained that the sport had become too predictable, especially after four consecutive years of Golden State and Cleveland clashing in the finals, with the Warriors winning three times and being heavy favorites to add a fourth title in five years next month.

The contradiction is that some of the folks who have complained about the seeming inevitability have also objected to such game changers as LeBron James and Kevin Durant embracing a self-determinative career journey. Leonard, too, was criticized for strong-arming his way out of San Antonio, though he did acknowledge the Spurs on Sunday in explaining his sheer brilliance this spring.

“I was fortunate to be on some pretty good teams early, on deep playoff runs, which helped me out to where I am today, at 27,” he said.

Ujiri didn’t naïvely bring Leonard to Toronto. There was no set of prescribed circumstances — not even winning a championship, as Leonard has already won a ring with the Spurs and still wanted out — that ensured his signature. And though Leonard has shared none of his thoughts behind a face made for the highest poker stakes, there has been no shortage of speculation that the Los Angeles native wants to go home.

Reporters have tried all season to induce a word or sign of intent, with no success. His teammate Serge Ibaka was the latest to pop the question when he recently had Leonard as a guest on a cooking show he hosts

“Bro, are you coming back?” Ibaka asked, out of the blue.

“What kind of question is that?” Leonard said.

After Ibaka offered to ask it again, in Spanish, Leonard brushed it off, saying, “We’ll see after the season is up.”

For everyone’s sake, better to live in the moment, keep 2019 hope alive. Reflecting the urgency of a classic series swing game, the talented forward Pascal Siakam was in the starting lineup despite being listed as doubtful with a calf injury. Lowry, as promised, came out aggressive, looking for his shot. The Raptors never trailed in the first half, contesting the paint far better than they did in Game 3 and holding their own on the boards.

The lead seesawed during the second half, as Jimmy Butler and J. J. Redick compensated for Embiid’s lethargy, settling for setting high screens or trying to locate the cutters. It was still anyone’s game at 91-90 when Leonard, dribbling left to right, rose to shoot from 26 feet, recalling a similar regular-season situation against Houston, when his shot came up short.

“Get it up high, at least to the back rim,” he said.

Still in the moment, Leonard pulled the Raptors back from what might have been the edge of their season and himself from having to begin confronting his decision. His reward is getting to think no further than Game 5, on Tuesday night, in the Canadian city he currently calls home.