TORONTO — Coming off the floor at Oracle Arena, having taken two games from the two-time defending champs on their floor and heading home with the knowledge that they were one win away from securing an NBA championship, the Raptors showed us nothing. No laughter, no smiles, not even a fist pump or a high-five.
If there was any lingering doubt that the Raptors have absorbed Kawhi Leonard’s stoic mindset and made it their own, their performance in Oakland made it clear: This is Kawhi’s team. They have so fully adopted his persona that all that old ancient Raptor baggage has become a thing of the past.
“I think I’ve said it in many ways,” longtime point guard Kyle Lowry noted earlier in the series. “His demeanor has kind of taken a big part of our team. And we have some guys that are fiery and feisty, but we all kind of just stay level headed and never get too up, never get too down.”
The Raptors are no longer the team that panics or melts in the biggest moments. Rather, they have proven tougher and more adaptable than their opponents. Give them a game or two to figure things out and they will systematically dismantle your game plan while imposing their will.
It helps, of course, to have a player on your side of Leonard’s caliber and strength. Opposing players literally bounce off him, like poor Kevon Looney who suffered a fractured collarbone when he collided with Leonard in Game 2.
“He’s got great physical power,” Golden State assistant Ron Adams said. “When he goes for a loose ball, it’s like, Boom. He’s there. I would say that LeBron (James) and Kawhi have that.”
The James comparison is an interesting one. While they are different players in many respects, both have the gravitational pull to define how games are played at both ends of the floor. Should the Raptors complete their quest for a championship, Leonard would join LeBron as the only superstars to ever topple the Warriors. And like LeBron has done so many times in his career, Kawhi has emerged as a singularly dominant playoff presence.
Leonard is averaging 31 points and 10 rebounds during the Finals, a subtly strong capper on a postseason run that has already seen him dispatch the Philadelphia 76ers with a legendary buzzer-beater and take the measure of presumptive league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. If there was a playoffs MVP, Leonard would win in a landslide.
“No matter if you’re winning or losing or whatever the case might be, he always has that, just that swag, that everything is going to be okay,” Toronto forward Pascal Siakam said. “You can always see in his eyes that at any given time he can kind of take over.”
Considering the route he took to get here, it’s remarkable what Leonard has been able to achieve in his one season with the Raptors. It was barely a year ago when the whole league was concerned enough about his health and his mindset — who would want to leave the Spurs? — that Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri was able to trade for him without surrendering key players like Siakam.
The NBA is obsessed with finding transformational players who have the game to completely revamp an organization with their performance. Very few are able to deliver with such force in so short an amount of time. Rarer still are the ones who can affect a positive cultural change. Kawhi, it turns out, is one of those guys.
On the cusp of a second championship, and possibly a second Finals MVP, Leonard stands to join the rarified company of the truly elite. Not that those kind of accolades seem to have any impact on him whatsoever.
“I just want to play and just let people remember that I played hard at both ends of the floor, I was a winner, and that’s basically it,” Leonard said.
His media personality is famously downbeat to the point of dour. But get beyond the stone-faced public comments and a simple truth begins to emerge. This is fun for him and there’s no need to make it anything more than that.
“For him, he just loves the game,” Toronto assistant coach Phil Handy said. “He really loves basketball. He’s just like a kid doing the thing that he loves. When you’re a kid you’re not really focused on anything else. He is in that moment. That’s his gift. That’s a gift that he has to just ride the wave.”
If Leonard and the Raptors are able to close the deal on Monday night and capture the first championship in franchise history, it will set up an unprecedented situation. Leonard is a free agent this summer and the rumor mill has churned all year with whispers that he is eying a return home to Los Angeles to play for the Clippers. Doing so would mean leaving a team he just led to a title.
Even in this era of unfettered player agency, no one has ever made such a move. But then, Kawhi is just a different kind of guy. There is no artifice with Leonard, no secret agenda bubbling near the surface. What does Kawhi really want is the question that has lingered at the heart of these Finals, and no one has a strong enough conviction to answer that question yet.
If Kawhi wants to go home, he’ll go home. If he wants to stay in Toronto, he’ll do so with the knowledge that the Raptors have done everything in their power to keep him. He’s made no promises or declarations either way. He doesn’t owe anybody anything, and it would frankly be hard to find fault with any decision he chooses to make.
Much like he does with his opponents, Kawhi gives you nothing. As legendary rattler Draymond Green noted, “I don’t think you’re ever going to rattle Kawhi.”
There’s power in that simplicity. Free agency drama has dominated the league this season to an unprecedented degree causing consternation among players and franchises alike, but Leonard has simply refused to be swallowed up in its wake. There is basketball and there is life, and he is able to separate the two in a way that is so simple it’s almost off-putting in a league that ebbs and flows with the forceful personas of its stars.
“I just try to take my experiences and just keep moving forward and just have fun,” he said. “Like I said, just basketball at this point. Win, lose or draw, I’m still going to be living, still got a family. This is all for fun.”
Leonard may not possess the kind of charismatic persona that moves sneakers and sells movies, but he is far from boring. Rather, he possesses the one trait that we’re all trying to find in this hectic world: focus. There does not appear to be a secret mantra or ancient meditative technique guiding Kawhi’s innermost thoughts, and if there was he wouldn’t tell us anyway.
You know it when you see it and when an entire team emerges from the biggest win in franchise history with a collective groupmind like the Raptors did in Oakland, you see the true power of Kawhi Leonard.
“Steph (Curry) was incredible. The stuff he does is, he does things that honestly I don’t think anybody has ever done before. The way he plays the game, the way he shoots it and the combination of his ball handling and shooting skills, it’s incredible to watch. He was amazing.”
—Golden State coach Steve Kerr.
Reaction: I’m not going to lie, I want to see if Curry can return to an MVP level without Kevin Durant. Bet he could.
“We didn’t do nothing yet. We haven’t done anything. We won three games. It’s the first of four. We understand that. They’re the defending champs, and they’re not going to go out easy. They’re going to come and fight and prepare to play the next game, and that’s how we’re preparing ourselves, that we have to — we got to prepare ourselves to play the next game. We haven’t done anything yet.”
—Toronto guard Kyle Lowry.
Reaction: Lowry’s right, of course, but Toronto’s postgame stone faces were realer than Easter Island.
“Yeah, I mean, listen, I don’t really care. I don’t really give a crap, is my line. Like, I mean, if things work, I don’t care if I go out there and four guys stand on their head and we get a stop, right? And it was very effective. The only basket they got against it was a three-pointer by Iguodala with eight seconds to go or something like that.”
—Toronto coach Nick Nurse on the box-and-one.
Reaction: When you’ve coached in the minor leagues, as Nurse calls them, you tend not to worry about what other people think. He busted it out again for a possession or two in Game 4 and it worked again.
“I used to say that back when I was in high school and college. Just wanting to get to this league, just — it’s about working hard, basically, outworking the opponent. Rebounds help you win games, big rebounds, offensive rebounds, limiting the team to one shot. And that used to be our motto, just some of us that were in college that was trying to get to this point. I forgot your first two questions.”
—Raptors forward Kawhi ‘Board Man gets paid’ Leonard.
Reaction: Perfect. Just perfect.
“Favorite moment from this arena? That’s a tough one. That’s a really good question. First playoff series here was pretty exciting. It was pretty good. We hadn’t priced out many people yet, so it was good.”
—Warriors forward, and serial truth teller, Andre Iguodala
Reaction: I went to Oracle for the first time in 2012 and thought it was the best crowd in the league, by far. That was also the night they booed Joe Lacob for trading Monta Ellis. Things change, but not always for the better.
CONSUMABLE NBA THOUGHTS
The Raptors’ two wins in Oracle were stunning until they seemed obvious. It’s become very clear that Toronto is simply the better team right now. How did we get here? It was a slow build that suddenly feels inevitable.
Toronto’s poise is inspiring.
It’s true that the Raptors have tons of postseason experience. They even have a good deal of Finals savvy considering Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Serge Ibaka have all been part of runs to the championship round. Still, their ability to withstand early deficits, and play comfortably when ahead has been the defining characteristic of this series. The Warriors have broken so many teams with their flurries over the years, but the Raps have barely flinched.
Golden State’s defense is broken.
The key to the Warriors’ rise was a defense that was ahead of its time along with a connective spirit that covered for one another in their switch-everything scheme. The league has caught up to the first part, but it’s the second line that’s been continually shredded. In desperate straits, the Warriors blitzed pick-and-roll ball-handlers and then were caught flat-footed when the Raptors inevitably made the right pass. That’s not an accident. They’ve been mediocre defensively all year and it’s finally caught up to them.
Game 4 was the quintessential Kyle Lowry Game.
After scuffling through foul trouble and shaky shooting in the first two games, Lowry broke out in Game 3 with 23 points and nine assists, but he truly made his mark on these Finals with a nearly flawless fourth quarter in Game 4. Facing a steady stream of double teams and blitzes, Lowry patiently carved up the Warriors with five assists against only one turnover. This was K-Low at his absolute best, mixing equal parts savvy and gutsy determination. The dude has been a beast his entire career. He deserves this moment as much as anyone in the league.
Nick Nurse is a helluva coach
A working list of Nurse’s coaching resume wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Telindus Oostende in the Belgian League. And who could ever forget the London Towers? The best thing about Nurse is how proud he is of all those experiences. He doesn’t talk down on them or act like he’s above it now that he’s coaching in the Finals. Nor is he intimidated by the moment. He may be a first-year NBA coach, but he’s been doing this since he was 23 years old.
Turns out Kevin Durant was pretty important.
The Warriors are an incredible team without KD. They also have a much higher ceiling when he’s on the floor. Both things can be true and we don’t need to have a take-off to prove that both sides have a point. Personally, I prefer the aesthetics of the KD-less Warriors, but that’s not really important either. What’s relevant is there are a lot of teams the Warriors can handle without KD. The Raptors are not one of them.