Kawhi Leonard’s first season with the Toronto Raptors started with his now-infamous laugh.
It ended with him getting the last laugh.
The best player on the league’s newly crowned best team is an NBA Finals MVP for the second time. Toronto finally sits atop the basketball universe, with Leonard averaging 28.5 points in a six-game finals victory over the Golden State Warriors to lead the Raptors to their first championship.
He arguably ended any debate about who the best two-way player in the sport is at this moment.
“This is what I play basketball for,” Leonard said. “This is what I work out for.”
The King of the North, as they’ve been calling Leonard in Toronto, was King of the Playoffs. He’s the third player to win Finals MVP with two franchises, joining only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James.
Perhaps never more so than Thursday night.
After missing most of last season with a leg injury, after having his commitment questioned, after getting traded to Toronto, Leonard returned to basketball’s mountaintop. He thrust both arms high into the air when it was over, letting out a scream of joy. He even allowed himself a tiny smile when he hoisted the MVP trophy.
“He’s just a competitor,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “We respect that, for sure. He’s shown that again this entire playoff run.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo will probably win the NBA’s MVP award in a couple of weeks. James Harden and Paul George are the other finalists. And while all three of those players had marvelous regular seasons, the post-season was Leonard’s personal showcase.
He scored 732 points in the playoffs. Only Michael Jordan (759) and LeBron James (748) ever scored more in a single post-season. Leonard finished with 14 games of 30 points or more in these playoffs. The only players with more in a single post-season are Jordan (16 in 1992), Hakeem Olajuwon (16 in 1995) and Kobe Bryant (15 in 2009).
“Without a doubt, the best thing about this thing is that somehow I wound up on the sideline getting to watch this guy play up close,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who won an NBA title in his first season as a head coach in the league. “It’s really cool.”
Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam combined for 1,187 points this postseason, tied with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen for 2nd-most by a duo in a single postseason in NBA history. <br><br>Only LeBron James and Dwyane Wade had more in 2012 (1,222).
Leonard was the unquestioned leader. When the Raptors lost Game 2 of the NBA Finals at home and surrendered home-court advantage in the series, Nurse walked into a very glum locker room and reminded his team that it merely needed to win either Game 3 or Game 4 at Oracle Arena to reclaim control of the series.
Some nodded in agreement.
Leonard was not one of them, saying, “Let’s go get both.”
They got both.
And then, on their return trip to Oracle for Game 6, they got one more. They closed Oracle with a title-clincher.
“I don’t know that any people will argue with me that he’s the best two-way player in the NBA,” Raptors President Masai Ujiri said.
Getting Leonard was just one of a bold series of moves Ujiri made in the last 12 months. He fired last season’s coach of the year in Dwane Casey and hired Nurse. He traded away three players at midseason for Marc Gasol. And he took the risk that Leonard would be both happy enough and healthy enough to take the Raptors to the newest and highest of heights.
The trade that sent DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Leonard was high-risk, high-reward. Leonard was acquired on July 18 and formally introduced as training camp was beginning on Sept. 24. He can become a free agent on June 30 and he’ll almost certainly make in excess of $32 million US next season no matter how long a deal he ends up signing — and whether that’s in Toronto or someplace else.
“This is the place for him,” Ujiri said.
Regardless of what’s next, Leonard’s memorable post-season won’t soon be forgotten.
There was the four-bounce-off-the-rim, at-the-buzzer jump shot from the corner to beat Philadelphia in Game 7 of the second round. A 15-point fourth quarter to lift the Raptors past Milwaukee in the pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. A 17-point third quarter at Oracle Arena in Game 4 of the finals, as the Raptors took control of the game and the series.
“You can always see in his eyes that at any given time he can kind of take over,” Pascal Siakam said.
Leonard can be thought of as enigmatic or anti-social.
He’s not really either of those things. He’s just quiet.
He rarely opens up about anything. He doesn’t talk about his private life. He hardly ever discusses the murder of his father, which happened when Leonard was playing in high school. He scored 17 points in a game the day after his father was shot and killed, perhaps the ultimate proof that he’s always been capable of blocking out everything else when he steps onto a court.
“Once it happened, I thought about it a lot,” Leonard said. “But as I got older, I pretty much just really stopped thinking about it. I think it just gave me a sense and feel that life and basketball are two different things and just really enjoy your time and moments. Like I always say, this is basketball; just go out there and have fun. These are going to be the best years of my life, playing this game.”