NBA: Understated Kawhi Leonard taps into inner-Michael Jordan to lead Toronto Raptors to historic championship

Kawhi Leonard is the equilibrium.

Game 6. The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and leading 112-110 in the game. They have possession. Only 0.9 seconds remain in the game. They are going to win their first NBA title.

The ball is inbounded to Kawhi Leonard, and all he has to do is spend less than a second for the title to be his. He attacks the basket. The buzzer sounds and the celebrations begin. But the game is not over, because Leonard has been fouled by Andre Iguodala. There is some confusion. But Leonard argues for the call. He gets it. He sinks two more free throws.

Now, the series is over. Now, when Stephen Curry attempts a full-court three-pointer, it is meaningless. Now, the Raptors win their first NBA title.

The Raptor players on the floor and the bench spring up with ecstatic joy. Their visiting fans in Oakland’s Oracle Arena erupt into “We the North” chants. Back in Toronto, tens of thousands celebrate on the street like a country does after winning the World Cup. As the only Canadian franchise in the league, this title does, indeed, belong to the whole country. All of Canada celebrates. The prime minister tweets about it. It’s a moment that felt so elusive in so many disappointments, but one that is finally here. It’s theirs. They are loud. They are elated.

 NBA: Understated Kawhi Leonard taps into inner-Michael Jordan to lead Toronto Raptors to historic championship

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard celebrates with the Larry O'Brien Trophy after defeating the Golden State Warriors in game six of the 2019 NBA Finals. Reuters

Leonard raises his own arms and he roars. It’s a rare show of sentiment from a man often caricatured as a basketball-machine. But silence, as Leonard has proven over and over again, isn’t exclusive from passion. Leonard is the equilibrium: he absorbs and soaks in all the malaise and nervousness and emotional high-and-lows of the basketball world around him — especially the passionate basketball fans of his Raptors — and he delivers it with his unflinching, unbothered efficiency.

He didn’t let the last 0.9 seconds of emotion bother him. He was there to do a job, and that was the job he did. Next.

Kawhi Leonard is misunderstood.

Or un-understood, more like it. In this world where ad campaigns and sponsors often turn men into myths, where we elevate the likes of Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron into having some sort of abstract superpower, we sometimes find Leonard difficult to understand because of his simplicity. There seems to be no facade to his game. No constructed narrative to his greatness. He keeps it so simple in interviews that we sometimes tune out.

“I’m just focused on what’s in front of me,” he said, before winning the championship.

“This is what I play basketball for,” he said, after winning the championship, and then added later, in reference to the Larry O’Brien championship trophy, “I want that ‘Larry O B’”.

And that’s it.

Kawhi Leonard bounced back.

Five years ago, he won his first championship with the San Antonio Spurs and became the youngest Finals MVP a history. From a glorified role player, he then evolved into a true star over the next few years, winning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, and in 2016-17, elevating his all-around game to an unexpectedly high level to finish top-three in MVP voting.

But the honeymoon ended in the 2017 Conference Finals, when — playing against these same Warriors — he rolled his ankle over Zaza Pachulia’s foot. The injury led to a mysterious and frustrating 2017-18 season, where Leonard’s relationship with the Spurs deteriorated. He only played nine games and demanded a trade. But, despite his stellar past, it was unsure if he’d be worth the gamble for any team, considering his injury and upcoming contract expiry.

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard reacts after an injury during the third quarter in game one of the Western conference finals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs against the Golden State Warriors. Reuters

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard reacts after an injury during the third quarter in game one of the Western conference finals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs against the Golden State Warriors. Reuters

The Raptors took that gamble. Frustrated by years of stagnation, Toronto’s president Masai Ujiri traded the Raptors’ most-accomplished player DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Leonard and Danny Green. At the time, it was hard to judge if it had been the right move. On his day, Leonard had the capability of being a top-five player in the league. But in a Toronto jersey, he arrived as a big question mark — one that could potentially leave them with nothing after a season.

But Leonard turned Uriji’s rick into a thrilling reward. Not only did Leonard assimilate quickly into the new team and played himself back into shape, he raised his game up to a new stratosphere in the playoffs. With multiple heroics, he delivered the team their first title less than 11 months after the deal. On the way, he erased all question marks about his comeback form injury. He became better than ever.

Kawhi Leonard is a leader.

The best leaders are the ones who become the embodiment of the whole team, or, whose personality traits the entire squad adopts. Think Tim Duncan and the Spurs. Kevin Garnett in the Celtics. Stephen Curry with the Warriors.

Leonard’s impact on the Raptors this season has been undeniable. Before they got him, the team were known for reliability in the regular season and unreliability in the playoffs. But Leonard’s stoic, fearless, unshaken personality seemed to spread like a powerful plague in the Toronto locker room. Now, instead of panicking after deficits in all three playoff rounds in the East, they bounced back with a quiet sense of confidence. In the Finals, facing the two-time champions, they won all three games on the road, following Leonard’s lead and shrugging off pressure.

By the time the championship-clinching Game 6 came around, the last-ever game at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, the team was ready. Leonard had a sub-par game by his high standards (22 points), but the rest of the team picked up around him. At different points in this playoff run, Kyle Lowry, Paskal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Danny Green, and Fred Van Vleet proved their worth. Like Leonard, they got the job done.

Kawhi Leonard got unlucky. And then he got very lucky.

Two years ago, the foot injury ended his chance to beat the Warriors, stole away almost an entire season from his prime years, broke his relationship with the Spurs, and raised doubts about his career ahead.

But he rehabbed. He got traded to a franchise with winning aspirations and a positive culture. He was allowed ‘load management’ to ease back into form. He survived four bounces on the rim in an epic series-winning shot against the 76ers.

And in the Finals, while his team was at near full-health, he faced a battered and bruised Warriors team that played without Durant for most of the series, that lost Klay Thompson at crucial stretches, that lost Kevon Looney, too. The odds favoured him. And he didn’t let those odds down.

Kawhi Leonard is Jordanesque.

No, he isn’t Michael Jordan. He isn’t the Greatest of All Time. In many ways, he isn’t yet in the class of those that followed Jordan’s blueprint into the 21st century: the Kobes, the LeBrons, the Durants.

But there is something about Leonard’s game that evokes long-lost memories of watching MJ in his prime. The jab-steps to create space. The confident mid-range jumpers and the step-backs. The ability to use his strength to bulldoze and attack the basket. The sneaky athleticism. The defensive IQ. The intensity to guard — and stifle — the opposing team’s best players. The competitive fire. The late-game heroics.

In a small sample size, there are some statistical similarities in the points Leonard accumulated on the offensive end. But zoom in closer, and you’ll see him shadowing His Great Airness in more nuanced ways. Like Jordan, Leonard showed — over and over again — the ability to take and make the deciding shots in the playoffs. Like Jordan, he went through stretches of scoring and defence in important games where he looked like an unstoppable Basketball God.

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard shoots against Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid in game seven of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Reuters

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard shoots against Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid in game seven of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Reuters

There was the 10-0 personal run in Game 5 of the Finals that nearly clinched Toronto the title. There was the switch to MVP favourite Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Conference Finals that swung the series from 2-0 to four straight Raptor wins. There were clutch steals in double overtime. There were posters he made of the Greek Freak. Poster dunks on Joel Embiid. That ‘four-bounce’ series winner against the 76ers. And a simple, single-minded determination to eliminate everyone that came in his way.

Kawhi Leonard is a machine.

He’s the T-1000 villain from Terminator 2, a cyborg sent from the future to destroy your favourite basketball teams. He doesn’t feel pain, he doesn’t get tired, he doesn’t slow down, he doesn’t stop.

He had already made a name for himself in 2014 for frustrating LeBron James and stopping the Heat’s potential three-peat. But in this playoff run, the machine rebooted itself to full power. He ended the hopes of an outmatched Magic squad. He broke the hearts of the talented 76ers. He became a roadblock for Giannis and the Bucks as they aspired for the title. He defeated the hobbled — but experienced — two-time champ Warriors.

Leonard was near-perfect this off-season, averaging 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.7 steals per game, while shooting 49 percent from the floor. He ended up with the third-highest points in a single postseason in NBA history, trailing only Michael Jordan and LeBron James. He became only the second player ever — after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James — to win Finals MVP with two different teams. He had an otherworldly 62 percent true-shooting mark. And he did it while also playing defence at a level that would strike fear into the best offensive players that ever played the game.

Kawhi Leonard is a champion, again

Kawhi Leonard will probably do it again.

The question isn’t ‘if’, the question is ‘where’.

Leonard will become a free agent in about two weeks. And with the injury to Durant and his own recent form, he will enter this off-season as the most-wanted man in the league. The Clippers, the Lakers, the Nets, the Knicks, and other mystery teams will try to make him offers he can’t refuse. They’ll try to sell him on home, on off-court opportunities, on teammates, on money, on weather, on future championship aspirations. The Raptors will hope to bet their future on him, too. And he’ll be free to choose.

Whether or not that jersey changes, one thing is for certain: as long as Leonard (soon to be 28) is healthy, the game will remain the same. Wherever he goes, he will be a championship contender. Through eight years in the NBA, and thanks chiefly to this time with the Spurs, Leonard has the best winning percentage of All Time. With the move to Toronto, he proved he could keep up the same high standard in a different system.

The Raptors were unlikely champions this season, capitalising on a series of lucky bounces and their own balanced depth to shock the world. Leading their charge, Leonard was the perfect star for this perfect storm. And wherever he ends up next season, he’ll continue to keep winning games, continue to dominate on both ends of the floor, continue to aim at that ‘Larry O B’.

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Updated Date: Jun 15, 2019 22:00:42 IST