Kawhi Leonard holds the NBA in his hands

by Wes Goldberg

Once the dust settled, Kawhi Leonard sent a text to his new teammate Kyle Lowry.

“Let’s go out and do something special,” it read. “I know your best friend left, I know you’re mad, but let’s make this thing work out.”

On Thursday, Leonard and the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors 114-110 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, winning the championship and taking their place atop the basketball world. Leonard won his second-career Finals MVP award in a bounce-back season. Toronto won its first ever championship. They popped champagne after the last-ever game at Oracle Arena, the home of one of the most dominant dynasties the league has ever seen. They did something special, and they couldn’t have done it without Leonard.

Leonard averaged 28.5 points on 43.4 percent shooting, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.2 blocks in six Finals games. He was the best player on the floor for most of the series and the steady hand that Toronto’s coaches and players relied on throughout the playoffs. Leonard has long been regarded as the best “two-way” player in the league, but in the last couple of months, he swatted away the modifier. On a single possession, he can put his imprint on the game like no other player and steer it in another direction.

One particular I’m the captain now moment occurred in the first quarter of the close-out game. Stephen Curry got around a double team and thought he had an open layup, only Leonard’s foot-long paw came out of nowhere to block his shot. Leonard tipped the ball to himself, sprinted off in transition and shimmied into a pull-up mid-range jumper to extend an early lead. Several players can do a few of those things. No other player can do all of them like that, so often.

It’s plays like this that made trading DeMar DeRozan, a franchise icon and Lowry’s best friend, for Leonard a no-brainer for general manager Masai Ujiri.

Through a long and drawn-out process, and for reasons still unclear, Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio after a quad injury sidelined him for most of the 2017-18 season. He made it known that he wanted to play for one of the Los Angeles teams, and other front offices were hesitant to move their best assets for a player who could leave after one season.

Ujiri, however, saw it as an opportunity to shake things up. The Raptors had just been swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, adding to a growing list of postseason disappointments. The DeRozan-Lowry duo, Ujiri concluded, had taken Toronto as far as they could go. By trading DeRozan and the remaining years on his contract, Ujiri could put all his chips on one season and clear the decks for a rebuild if Leonard left. He pulled the trigger. DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick for Leonard and Danny Green.

“We all know where my destinations were. But obviously like I said when I was there on my opening day meeting, that I was focused on the now and I wanted to make history here, and that’s all I did,” Leonard said. “I’m still playing basketball no matter what jersey I have on. And the guys here have been making runs in the playoffs before I came, so I know they were a talented team. And I just came in with the right mindset, let’s go out and win ball games.”

Even if he leaves this summer, the deal paid off. Leonard, along with first-year head coach Nick Nurse, took a perennial playoff team used to postseason heartbreak over the hump. Unlike earlier editions of the Raptors, Leonard gets better in the postseason. He blossomed in the NBA Finals in 2014 and dominated the series. He managed his load and missed 20 games this season for Toronto before morphing into the most consistent player in the playoffs.

Coming from San Antonio, Leonard and Green knew something the rest of the Raptors didn’t: what it was like to lose a championship, and what it takes to win one.

There was a moment it seemed Toronto could let the championship slip through its hands. After securing a 3-1 lead in the series, the Raptors lost to the Warriors in Game 5. At the end of Game 6 back in Oakland, with 9.6 seconds left to play, the Raptors had possession and were up one. All they needed to do was inbound the ball and play the foul game. However, Green got the ball along the sideline, the Warriors trapped, and he panicked and threw the ball out of bounds on a bad pass to Pascal Siakam. The door was open for the Warriors to take the lead on the final possession. Curry got a look at the rim and let a 3-pointer fly but missed.

“It didn’t look like it was a good shot. I mean, he hits those shots, but I wasn’t too worried about it at that moment. Obviously, he can make that. He made it millions of times, but I just was focused on the rebound. I’ve been in situations like that in a Finals that I lost by two or three points, and we lost that game because of rebounds.”

Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, Leonard was referencing Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. LeBron James launched a potential game-tying 3 that clanged off the rim. Chris Bosh got the rebound and kicked it out to Ray Allen, who made the shot and kept the Heat’s chances alive. Miami went on to win the series in seven games. It’s that sort of high-stakes experience that helps Leonard stay locked in.

After Curry’s shot missed, Leonard battled Draymond Green for the rebound and made three free throws to close the game.

“He’s unbelievably good,” Lowry said. “He’s been showing that all year. There’s nothing you can — he’s shown us this all year. Yeah, he’s a NBA Finals MVP again.”

He is, and he’s also set to be the top free agent on the market. Leonard will turn 28 at the end of the month and, after Kevin Durant suffered a ruptured Achilles in Game 5, will be the undisputed best player available. He’s the rare free agent who is hitting his prime, coming off a championship and regarded as available.

Even with the championship, it’s not a guarantee that Leonard will re-sign in Toronto. Only a few weeks ago, it seemed like he was destined to sign with the L.A. Clippers. Now, Leonard has the NBA in his hands as the league’s best player. Both L.A. teams have the cap space to sign him to a maximum contract. New York and Brooklyn can too. Heck, he could sign with Indiana if he wanted to. It doesn’t matter. Wherever he wants to go, he can go there.

Durant’s injury also opens the window for Leonard to build the next super team. Had Durant been healthy, he could have lured Kyrie Irving and maybe finagled an Anthony Davis trade to New York or Brooklyn. Durant’s injury doesn’t preclude that from happening, but it does delay that super team’s rise for at least a year. Meanwhile, Golden State will likely be transitioning, and LeBron James and the Lakers have considerably less momentum than Leonard.

“Just being able to win this championship this year is something special for me because you know how the last year everybody was looking at me, and I stayed true to myself, and I had a great support system,” Leonard said. “And once I got here to Toronto, they understood everything and kept moving from there.”

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For Leonard now, it is all about championships. He’s smack dab in the middle of his prime. He can stay with Toronto and seek a repeat. He can build a super team in the city of his choosing. With James dormant, Durant sidelined, and having already bested Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard could lead the NBA’s next dynasty.

Leonard inspired comparisons to Michael Jordan during his playoff run, and now he has two rings at the same age Jordan did. A chase for Jordan’s six is in the cards. The only question is, where does he want to do it?

Wes Goldberg is a contributor to The Step Back and the host of the daily Miami Heat podcast Locked On Heat.