TORONTO — Only Vince Carter scored more playoff points for Toronto than Kawhi Leonard did on Saturday night. And that was 18 years ago.
But if Leonard had his way, he would've given up his career-high for a couple extra minutes on the bench.
The Raptors star scored 45 points — matching his regular-season career high and topping his previous playoff high — and Toronto opened the Eastern Conference semifinal with a 108-95 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.
But Leonard could care less about personal accolades.
"I'm more of a guy that’s looking for team success, reaching that ultimate goal for my team," said Leonard, who also hauled down a team-high 11 rebounds. "I was trying to get out of the game before it got to that point. We were up 20 points with probably like five minutes left and I was already looking at the bench, trying to get them to take me out of the game."
Pascal Siakam was the only other Raptor in double figures with 29 points.
"They were unbelievable. Offensively and defensively," Kyle Lowry said of the team's top two scorers. "We're the type of team that everybody can step up. And those two guys are our options right now. Kawhi was just in the zone. And he probably could've had more. But he facilitated some and made some shots."
Carter had 50 points against Philadelphia in the second round in 2001.
A year after missing the playoffs and all but nine games of the regular-season with San Antonio due to a quadriceps injury, Leonard made it tough to believe Saturday night that he'd ever been hurt.
"These guys did a good job of putting a plan together and making sure I'd be healthy at this point. I have no complaints right now," Leonard said.
The 27-year-old drew chants of "M-V-P!" both after a beautiful spin move around Jimmy Butler early in the night and when he surpassed his previous best playoff points — set in 2017 versus Memphis — with a pair of free throws down the stretch.
"He's a spectacular player and he had a spectacular night and he hit some spectacular shots," said Sixers guard JJ Redick. "He's a superstar. He's as good as there is in the NBA at generating his own shot and making tough shots."
The basketball fan in Raptors coach Nick Nurse marvelled at Leonard's night.
Does Leonard ever surprise him?
"I guess not maybe surprising but pretty dang good tonight," Nurse said. "I just like the force he's playing with at both ends but especially when he's getting the ball. He's pushing it up the floor, he's punching the gaps with force, he's determined to get to spaces.
"I guess I shouldn't be surprised but that was pretty cool to watch tonight."
Lowry had nine points and eight assists, while Marc Gasol chipped in with eight points and did a solid job containing Sixers centre Joel Embiid.
Redick had 17 points to lead the Sixers, who had six players in double figures.
Game 2 is Monday in Toronto.
The Raptors led for most of the night, assembling a 19-point by late in the third quarter, and taking a 92-81 advantage into the fourth.
An alley-oop dunk from Fred VanVleet to Serge Ibaka had the Raptors up by 15 points. The Sixers clawed their way to within 11, but Leonard answered with five straight points to put Toronto firmly back in control with an 18-point lead. And when Ibaka blocked a Tobias Harris jumper with 6:18 to play, the Raptors centre waved a hand in the air gesturing for the Scotiabank Arena crowd to cheer.
They obliged. And when Nurse subbed Leonard and Siakam out of the game with 3:14 to play the crowd serenaded them with a standing ovation. Leonard, who was the MVP of the 2014 NBA Finals, has never lost to Philadelphia, a winning streak that stretches back 14 games.
The Raptors shot 51.9 per cent on the night, and held Philadelphia to 39 per cent.
"We were engaged defensively," Gasol said. "They're a very talented team. We have to be . . . there's no other way for us to win."
A star-studded crowd turned out for the series opener, included rapper Drake, singer Shawn Mendes, "The Handmaid's Tale" star Elisabeth Moss, Canadian players Cory Joseph and R.J. Barrett, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., a day after he made his major league debut with the Blue Jays.
Saturday's victory gave the Raptors their first five-game playoff winning streak in franchise history. The series winner faces either Boston or Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference final, which would be Toronto's second appearance (2016 was the team's first).
The Raptors won three of their four games against the Sixers in the regular-season, but both teams say the results are largely irrelevant — both Toronto and Philly look vastly different from the last time they met on Feb. 5, the day before the NBA trade deadline. The Raptors acquired Gasol at the deadline while Philly traded for Harris as part of a six-player deal.
The Raptors had dispatched Orlando in five games while the Sixers won their opening-round series against Brooklyn 4-1.
Leonard and Siakam carried Toronto on the offensive end, combining for 34 first-quarter points. They were two of just five Raptors who got on the scoreboard in the first half. The Raptors bench, which was so effective last season, went scoreless through the first half.
The Raptors and Sixers met in the second round of the 2001 playoffs, Philly winning in seven games when Carter's shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
Leonard and Siakam had 17 points apiece on 78 per cent shooting in the first and a pair of Leonard free throws late in the quarter gave Toronto a 14-point lead. The Sixers closed the frame with a 10-4 run, slicing the Raptors' lead to 39-31 to start the second.
Philadelphia kept the pressure on and pulled to within a point four minutes into the second quarter. But the Raptors responded with a 9-0 run to go up by 11. Toronto took a 61-52 advantage into the halftime break.
The series moves to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4.