Try to remember the 2017 NBA Finals.
Need some help? Here’s the most iconic moment from that series:
That entire season pretty much went according to the NBA scriptwriter’s plan: A year after LeBron Jamss and the Cavs 3-1’d their way into the history books, Kevin Durant bolted for Oakland to help the Warriors dominate for the entire season. The playoffs would then roll by as a formality, with a collision course in the Finals perfectly set up between your dad’s favorite face team and your brother’s favorite player.
The only hope the field had to oust the dynastic Warriors was LeBron ascending into a Christ-like immortality in the NBA Finals.
It didn’t happen. The Warriors swept the floor, left a spot, then came back and finished a gentleman’s sweep.
Lost within the depths of the overflowing memory bank of us everyday content consumers is that there was a second potential-Jesus that year. A cornrows-ed Jesus. A Jesus that chose to never preach at all because he just refused to utter any words.
Yet, everything about his on-court ability demanded at least marginally equal attention to that of his much more lauded Eastern Conference facsimile. And while the 2017 version of the Warriors will probably never admit it, he scared them. Or at the very least, his presence made them tense.
That was Kawhi Leonard: the part-robot, part-monster that no one in the league could fully comprehend. And he was the star of the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA’s first ever cult. They knew how to maximize both Kawhi’s basketball skills and monotonous personality. It was a match made in heaven.
So when the Warriors met Kawhi and the Spurs in the 2017 Conference Finals, they had no choice but to just… injure him.
I’m kidding. Ish. Kind of. The jury is still out on this, okay. But let’s move on.
That right ankle injury proved to be the beginning of the mysterious break-up between Kawhi and the San Antonio Spurs. He played just nine games in the 2017-2018 season, with people from ‘his camp’ saying he couldn’t play despite being cleared by the Spurs’ team doctors.
This caused growing tension behind the scenes in the generally cordial Spurs locker room, especially sinceLeonard was under contract for just one more season, and it seemed less and less likely he’d stay in Texas. And with the ambiguity surrounding Kawhi, his stock was at an all-time low.
In the summer of 2018, Kawhi was shipped North of the Border at the expense of the most beloved player in Raptors franchise history, DeMar DeRozan. Majority of the Raptors fan base went on a tirade — disgruntled that the team could cut ties so easily with the man that cemented Toronto on the NBA map. DeRozan’s best friend and longtime co-star, Kyle Lowry, was also clearly upset with the front office about the deal (and he probably still was until about a month ago).
But such emotional gut-punches are commonplace in the Raptors’ organization. They dealt with Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh’s departures. They dealt with sixth-seeded Brooklyn defeating them in Round 1 in 2014. They dealt with Paul Pierce returning with the Wizards and sweeping them in Round 1 in 2015. They dealt with LeBron taking complete ownership of the team from 2016-2018. And on top of those were the countless absolutely agonizing Game 1 losses in every single playoff series they seemed to enter.
Each Raptors high was followed with an extreme low that’s led them to catastrophize any and every situation.
Yet, the return from the DeRozan deal brought in Kawhi, the exact opposite player for what this fan base had grown into; An emotionless superstar whose lone task was to lead them to the promised land.
He barely grazed 60 games played in the regular season that still saw the Raptors win 58 games. But with Giannis rising in Milwaukee, Raptors fans once again proceeded with caution into the playoffs.
Game 1 vs Orlando, a 42-win team that barely deserved to make the playoffs.
“Here we go again,” said all the Raptors fans, who crawled back into their pessimistic shells.
But Kawhi Leonard has different DNA. One loss doesn’t deter him, and there’s no falling into an avalanche of emotions when facing adversity as with past Raptors. So in Game 2, he dominated, dropping 37 points to lead his Raptors to the first of four straight wins over the Magic.
And every single time the Raptors had their backs against the wall, Kawhi stayed stoic, letting the fire come out with his play on the court. He clawed them out of a 1-0 hole vs Orlando, a 2-1 hole vs Philly, and a 2-0 hole vs the Bucks.
If you still can’t believe how big of a hand he played in those turnarounds, here are Kawhi’s points scored in every Raptors playoff game following a loss: 37, 33, 39, 41, 30 and 22. The only outlier there is the series-clinching final game of the NBA Finals.
That’s not to say that Kawhi was not the definitive Finals MVP, with all due respect to Fred Vanvleet and the one Finals MVP vote that Hubie Brown threw his way, Kawhi finished the series with averages of 28.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.2 blocks enroute to becoming just the third player to ever win Finals MVP awards with two different franchises (Kareem Abdul-Jabar and LeBron James were the other two).
But anyone who paid attention to the Raptors playoff run would’ve noticed that the solo heroism that Kawhi had to portray through most of the first three rounds was not as noticable in the NBA Finals.
Because he had help. Because the rest of the team was no longer afraid. Because they finally fully inhaled Kawhi’s emotionless demeanor, freeing themselves from the Raptors curse that for so long had towered over them.Just look at how locked-in they were in the immediate aftermath of a Game 4 victory that put them up 3-1 IN THE NBA FINALS:
— NBA (@NBA) June 8, 2019
That type of focus is not a coincidence; It’s the type that’s only brought about by an established, deeply-embedded culture. And for a franchise that’s been only the opposite over the entirety of its existence, it took an immovable force showcasing it on the court, and proving it with concrete results.
That force was Kawhi Leonard.
By simply being who he was, he taught the Raptors how to get over who they once were.
The Toronto Raptors have risen from the depths of playoff fraudery to the mountaintops NBA lore. And it was all by the massive hands of the league’s most silent character; the one they most desperately needed.
Photos from Getty Images