After not touching the court at all last season, Kawhi Leonard proved to be a reliable first option for the Toronto Raptors, who’ve won the 2018/19 NBA Championship.
By Tom Stefanou
For the first time in franchise history, the Toronto Raptors are NBA champions. Since the foundation of the team in 1995, the Jurassic Park named team has achieved moderate success albeit limited to regular seasons.
Their playoff pushes in the past have been marred with inconsistency amongst star players such as Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan and quick 2nd round exits.
However, these playoffs were different, with the acquisition of All-Star Kawhi Leonard; NBA Champion, Finals MVP, 2-time Defensive Player of the Year. Not to undersell the Raptors, also with the now heavily underrated Marc Gasol who was poached at the trade deadline from the Memphis Grizzlies.
In the finals, Kawhi has proven to be a phenomenal player – putting the team on his back in most cases.
Kawhi averaged 28.5 points per game on 43% shooting and 60 TS % (True Shooting). But shooting stats only tell one half of the story. Immeasurably, Kawhi’s one on one defense and strong willingness to be a team leader made him the Finals MVP of the series.
Questions were posed, sometimes directly to Leonard. Would he play this season? Can the Raptors trust someone who sat out a whole season? Would he be the spark to take this team to the end, particularly with their failures in the past?
To answer; he did play, they did trust him, and he was the spark.
…Kawhi was the lead of a concerted effort by coach Nick Nurse and the Toronto Raptors to disrupt and make their opponents uncomfortable…
Kawhi Leonard is a different breed of superstar, not in his game but his persona. Whilst others have an unashamed cockiness about their game, Kawhi never puts himself in a situation which he must, mostly choosing his game to talk. An obvious observation of Leonard is that of his quiet nature, and one the media and casual fans love to mock. “Hey Kawhi, can I have a smile?” said one media member at a Media Day, with Kawhi begrudgingly obliging.
Who could forget the laugh? It’s the kind you jab your best mate over. But imagine your friend posting it to YouTube or Reddit and his friend remixing it. Perhaps that’s why the media will request a laugh from him and are shocked when it’s a genuine election of joy.
Leonard is of course right now still celebrating his team’s win, and most likely gives these past jokes no thought (would be hard when you’re 3 bottles of Dom Perignon deep).
He provided the Toronto Raptors the must needed edge to climb the hurdle of this playoffs, eliminating the Orlando Magic, who were red hot at the end of the season. The Philadelphia 76ers who took them to 7 hard fought games, and the Finals favourite Milwaukee Bucks who started their series 2 – 0 and the Raptors were quick to be written off.
To help eliminate the defending champions, producing a tremendous effort on both sides of the court all whilst playing through tendinitis in his left knee, is a testament to how tenacious he is. Yes, a lot of players did; but did they win Finals MVP?
It’s hard to make the Warriors look lost on offense, but Kawhi was the lead of a concerted effort by coach Nick Nurse and the Toronto Raptors to disrupt and make their opponents uncomfortable. Nurse was able to do this with “gimmicky” defensive plays such as a box and one targeting Steph Curry, key substitutions, positionless basketball and well-timed timeouts (bar one).
This was a series that many predicted to be a sweep or an easy win for the Warriors, with media such as Bleacher Report, CBS, and ESPN tipping Golden State.
Oh, and us too. Both Jordan and I didn’t predict Toronto in the Finals. But please, continue to read.
“Should I Stay or Should I Go Now” sung Mick Jones of the punk group, The Clash. Of course, Kawhi might be thinking the same thing this offseason as he weighs up his options of staying with Toronto or moving ship to elsewhere in the league. Toronto fans are of course politely asking him to stay, but understandable if he doesn’t, as he helped gift a championship.
Regardless, Leonard has already built a storied career by winning 2 NBA Finals, 2 Finals MVPs, and much more accomplishments. Coming back from a controversially received absence and despised by the team he was drafted and spent 7 seasons with, he’s refreshed many short memories about his superstar status that many will never forget.