NBA Finals 2019

Raptors pin all hopes on Leonard

The Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard, will be expected to score, pass and also coordinate the defence.
The Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard, will be expected to score, pass and also coordinate the defence. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TORONTO • As Kawhi Leonard moved to centre stage for his moment with Bill Russell, his San Antonio Spurs teammates raised their arms, grabbed a wrist with one hand, and splayed the fingers of the other as wide as possible.

The group "Klaw" sign, a homage to Leonard's mammoth mitts, was accompanied by joyous roughhousing to celebrate their 2014 National Basketball Association (NBA) title.

The then-22-year-old forward became the NBA's youngest Finals Most Valuable Player other than Magic Johnson, largely on the strength of his defence against then-Miami Heat star LeBron James.

Just as the NBA has changed dramatically since 2014, so too has Leonard. During that play-off run, he posted modest averages of 14.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists with a usage rate of just 18.9.

He was cast as an X-factor in a Finals loaded with Hall of Fame talent on both teams.

Leonard, now 27, is finally playing for a title again, after leading the Toronto Raptors past the Milwaukee Bucks in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

During an overwhelming run to these Finals, the three-time All-Star has averaged 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists, and his usage rate has swelled to 33.1.

After years of diligent work on his ball-handling, shot creation and playmaking, Leonard has become Option A and Option B for Toronto, especially late in games.

He drilled a series-winning jumper to eliminate the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, and he regularly took over in fourth quarters to put away the Bucks.

The past five years have been full of trials.

• 2015: The Spurs were eliminated in the first round by the Los Angeles Clippers, as coach Gregg Popovich surprisingly cut Leonard's minutes in Game 7.

• 2016: They were ousted by the Oklahoma City Thunder, with Kevin Durant outduelling Leonard and Tim Duncan riding off into retirement.

• 2017: Leonard emerged as an MVP candidate, only to see his season go to waste with an ankle sprain during the Western Conference Finals.

• 2018: A leg injury and miscommunication and mistrust between Leonard and the Spurs led him to appear in just nine games and to stay away from the team during the play-offs.

Leonard's first season in Toronto has been a resurgent and unqualified triumph, but it has required adjustment and patience.

Reports initially indicated that he did not want to be traded to the Raptors, and rumours persist that he still might leave as a free agent this summer.

Leonard missed nearly a quarter of the 2018-19 season due to "load management" - a strategy that successfully preserved his body for the play-offs but also led many observers to overlook both him and the Raptors.

Given that Durant is still sidelined due to a calf strain and "unlikely to play at the beginning of the series", Leonard will enter these Finals as its central force.

Toronto, viewed by bookmakers as the clear underdogs against Golden State, will look to him for answers at every turn.

To pull off an upset, Leonard will need to score in volume and set off chains of passes against Golden State's high-pressure traps.

He will also be a defensive linchpin, possibly seeing time on all four Warriors stars: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Durant (should he return).

This will be a very different Finals than the one that helped make Leonard a household name five years ago. He no longer defers to or plays in anyone's shadow, he is not surrounded by legends, and he is not coached by one of the sport's all-time greats in Popovich.

Crucially, he will not be leading a team-wide plan to slow down a single superstar. Instead, he will be on the receiving end of such an effort.

Beating the Warriors would deliver a validation few could have predicted during his extended time away from the court, but making it this far has been an incredible achievement in its own right.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2019, with the headline 'Raptors pin all hopes on Leonard'. Print Edition | Subscribe