Kawhi Leonard: the man standing between the Warriors and yet another NBA title

Golden State are predicted to win a fourth NBA title in five seasons. But the Toronto Raptors have a player capable of making a difference everywhere on court

The Toronto Raptors didn’t quite come from nowhere to make the NBA finals but they hardly entered the playoffs as the favorites to come out of the East. Past demons loomed largely. So did the Sixers, Celtics and Bucks. But this Toronto team, built differently to their disappointing predecessors of the last half-decade, advanced to the franchise’s first NBA finals, thanks to the acquisition of a true paradigm-shifter: Kawhi Leonard. He’s also perhaps the only player on earth with a realistic chance of stopping the Golden State Warriors juggernaut from winning a fourth NBA title in five seasons.

Leonard is the definition of a franchise player. He elevates a good team into a championship contender. Along with veteran addition Marc Gasol and youngster Pascal Siakam, Leonard helped shatter the mental block of previous Raptors teams in the postseason, as Toronto came back from 0-2 down to win four straight games against Milwaukee and the likely league MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Leonard isn’t your typical superstar. He is quiet and contained, and his dominance isn’t as visceral as Antetokounmpo’s or as obvious as Steph Curry’s. He plays with a herky-jerky style rather than fluidity and grace. The rare thunderous dunks are offset by the more valuable possession-after-possession, difficult-to-see, defensive genius.

There were doubts, including from this writer, about Leonard’s trade from the Spurs this past summer. Would he even play in Toronto? If he did, would he return to his MVP-level given his mysterious injury? Even then, with a loaded Boston, looming Milwaukee and star-studded Philly, would it matter? Add to that: the Raptors were shipping out DeMar DeRozan, a franchise icon.

In the end, none of the fears were warranted. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri bet big and won. He knew the difference Leonard could make, and the Raptors acquired a finals MVP for the cost of a middling All-Star and a so-so prospect.

DeRozan is 90% of the player Kawhi is – a legitimate All-Star who initiates offense and is a nuisance on defense. But that final 10% is everything; it’s the championship difference. It’s the difference between a team playing in its first finals and one that was routinely smoked in the playoffs at the hands of LeBron James. Every one of those 10 percentage points is harder to find than the one before.

Leonard’s brilliance cannot be overstated. He guards the opposing team’s best player with all the verve of peak-Scottie Pippen, then carries the load on offense as playmaker and scorer in a similar way to Michael Jordan or James. It sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not.

If he’s not the most effective star in recent postseason history, then Leonard is as near as makes no difference. Here’s a list of players who have averaged at least 30 points, shot 51% from the field, 38% from three-point range, and 85% from the line in the same postseason: Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, Rolando Blackman, and Leonard. Jordan played three games in the one postseason he put up those stats, Miller and Blackman played four apiece. Kawhi has played eighteen!

Leonard’s offensive game has diversified. He is attacking the rim with a new degree of ferocity, drawing 7.4 fouls per game, a massive leap from the 2.6 per game he drew on the way to his finals MVP award in 2013-14. Getting to the line is essential to win the title.

And yet his best work still comes defensively. You have to really hone in on his defense to appreciate its greatness. Opposing ball-handlers walk up the court in fear. Leonard’s gigantic hands (9.75 inches in length, 11.25 inches in width) pounce on the slightest mistake. He’s scoured 1.6 steals per game in the playoffs.

The Raptors will need a herculean effort from Leonard to stare to down these Warriors, one of the greatest teams of all time. He will be asked to play the role James filled in the 2016 finals, when the Cavaliers upset Golden State. Having home court advantage won’t matter if Leonard is anything shy of his best. He will have to dominate on both ends of the floor, subsuming an almost impossible workload – all the games he missed this season citing “load management” now make sense.

Which Golden State team we are treated to could change things. Will we get the egalitarian, free-flowing stylings of Curry and Klay Thompson? Or will it be the more efficient, slightly plodding remix when Kevin Durant is in the lineup?

Durant’s calf injury clouds everything. Matching up with Durant one-on-one would be less taxing for a skilled defender like Leonard than running around and chasing the ball-movement we see when Durant is out of the lineup. But the Warriors are better and more efficient with Durant on the floor, despite the team ripping off a 32-1 run when Curry plays and Durant does not.

Maybe it won’t matter in the end. But those are questions Raptors fans dreamed of prior to Leonard’s arrival. The finals, however they turn out, will be the biggest moment in Raptors history and perhaps the history of Canadian basketball. Leonard has already delivered on his end of the bargain. Win four more games in the next few weeks, though, and his career and legacy will launch into an entirely new stratosphere.


Oliver Connolly

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Raptors froze against the Warriors, but the title stays theirs to lose
A head-scratching timeout by Toronto may have swung the outcome of Game 5, but the Raptors remain favorites to win the NBA title with Kevin Durant gone for good

Oliver Connolly

11, Jun, 2019 @3:00 PM

Article image
Raptors handle Warriors in Game 4 to move within victory of first NBA title
Toronto won 105-92 in Friday night’s Game 4 of the NBA finals to take a commanding 3-1 series advantage

Melissa Rohlin at Oracle Arena, Oakland

08, Jun, 2019 @4:11 AM

Article image
Raptors send Toronto into raptures as they beat Warriors to take first NBA title
The Raptors outlasted the Warriors in a dramatic Game 6 to win the franchise’s first NBA championship in the final game at Oracle Arena

Melissa Rohlin at Oracle Arena, Oakland

14, Jun, 2019 @4:20 AM

Article image
The Raptors had every advantage against the Warriors. It didn't matter
The Warriors had to deal with injuries and a big first-half deficit in Game 2. But a team with Curry, Thompson and Green are never truly defeated

Oliver Connolly

03, Jun, 2019 @2:01 PM

Article image
How did the Golden State Warriors become the team no one likes?
The Warriors still want to be the newcomers, the radicals shaking up the sport. But they’re the establishment now

Aaron Timms

15, Jun, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
The Toronto Raptors achieved a rare feat: intimidating the Warriors
When Golden State go on a roll, opponents tend to panic. But Kawhi Leonard and Co kept their cool in a fevered Oracle Arena on Wednesday night

Oliver Connolly

06, Jun, 2019 @3:02 PM

Article image
NBA finals: Warriors beat Raptors in Game 5 thriller to keep series alive
The Toronto Raptors had a great chance to secure their first-ever NBA title until a late surge from the Golden State Warriors decided the game

Joshua Kloke at Scotiabank Arena, Toronto

11, Jun, 2019 @4:05 AM

Article image
Golden State Warriors 106-105 Toronto Raptors: NBA finals Game 5 – as it happened
Live updates: The Warriors lost Kevin Durant to injury - again - as they beat the Raptors to keep the NBA finals series alive

Hunter Felt

11, Jun, 2019 @4:07 AM

Article image
NBA finals: Pascal Siakam soars as Raptors beat Warriors in Game 1
Toronto struck the first blow of the finals as Pascal Siakam helped the Raptors to victory over the Warriors in Game 1 of the series

Joshua Kloke at Scotiabank Arena, Toronto

31, May, 2019 @3:37 AM

Article image
NBA finals: Curry's 47 points in vain as Raptors beat limping Warriors in Game 3
The Raptors did what so many teams have struggled to do before them: beat the Warriors in their own backyard

Melissa Rohlin at Oracle Arena, Oakland

06, Jun, 2019 @3:51 AM