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.