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If this is it for Kawhi Leonard, one season of mystery, magic and memories in Toronto, one year and one unexpected and exhilarating NBA championship, then, really, all you can say is thanks.
Thanks and you’ll never be forgotten.
Thanks and you pulled off what no one saw coming, maybe even yourself, a regular season of load management — a new term invented — uncertainty and basketball brilliance, with quiet steely-eyed confidence, affecting everyone around you.
That’s what the special players do in any sport: They set the tone. They sing the lead. They tune the instruments. They direct the orchestra. Whatever needs to be done gets done — and along the way every teammate grew a little taller, a little quicker, a little smarter, a little more serious, a little more diligent, a little more consumed because Leonard was consumed.
Leonard brought toughness and calm and strength to this championship team. He brought responsibility. He brought basketball intelligence. He brought purpose.
He brought his own varied version of Wayne Gretzky. Sometimes I’d watch Gretzky in his prime and think he’s not having much of a game. Then I’d look at the scoresheet at the end and see he had four points. It’s the same with Kawhi in a different way. Some nights he would look tired or off or just not himself and then you’d look at the scoresheet afterwards and see he put up 30 points and brought down nine rebounds. The great ones are about numbers and not about numbers all at the same time.
Nick Nurse did a marvellous job in his first season coaching the Raptors, his first season coaching Leonard. He’s the ninth NBA coach and third in recent seasons to win a title in his first year on the job. The last two, Tyronn Lue and Steve Kerr, had LeBron James in Cleveland and Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State. And the message from that is rather clear.
When you have the best player, you can win. Nurse had Kawhi. Your band sounds better when Paul McCartney sings along. The roster Dwane Casey was left with when he was fired as coach would never have won a championship. Those teams were fine, just didn’t have the right parts. They didn’t have a mega-star. You don’t win in the NBA, more than in any other league, without one. (St. Louis just won a Stanley Cup without a mega-star.)
What makes a basketball champion? Start with the most super of superstars. The slam-dunk Hall of Famers. The last 10 NBA champions had one of these players on their roster: Kawhi, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, LeBron with Dwyane Wade and friends, Dirk Nowitzki or Kobe Bryant.
The rest of the team fills in around the esteemed. The way the Raptors, a collection of size and athleticism and nationalities, so many players worth admiring, so many who stretched and grew their way into champions. It was a one-year journey of historical significance for a city and country. If it’s more than a year, the challenge is to find a way to repeat. But if it’s only a year, the ride was one we can never minimize or forget about.
Sports, as we know it, has changed forever around here. The way the city celebrated. The way the country climbed along for the ride. The way a sport we didn’t always care about, a league we saw as afterthought became central to so many of our lives.
Winning does that in most cities. In Toronto, because of the history of disappointment — this franchise and other teams in other leagues, the NBA title takes on even greater significance. We take nothing for granted here. We hope teams play hard and to their capabilities and maybe even beyond them. We don’t expect too much of anyone. But in this championship ride, so much changed.
This became a where-were-you series of games, from a where-were-you playoffs and a where-were-you regular season.
Kawhi Leonard gave Toronto that. He didn’t talk much to us. He didn’t smile on cue and pose for the cameras. He didn’t tell us how much he loved us — and we like to be told that. He didn’t end up on talk shows. He didn’t trust many around him. And from the inside, almost all of this had to be managed by the Raptors on a variety of levels.
They had to keep Kawhi happy, protected, “safe” is a word Nurse likes, no surprises and if they did that, then the possibilities become endless. The Raptors managed his playing time, managed his non-playing time. He had to learn to trust those around him and that wasn’t easy. The management had to learn to trust him and protect him, all at the very same time. It wasn’t always easy. Winning never is.
But this is a story that’s never been successfully written before. A one-year deal. A championship. Leonard came here, likely for one season, because Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster and the rest of the front office staff wanted to go for it. They wanted a shot at the NBA title. They wanted to be big-time in a league where they’ve normally played second fiddle in the past.
Ujiri knew what kind of player Leonard was. What he didn’t know, couldn’t know, was about the person, this mysterious person who basically walked out on San Antonio, walked out on the model franchise.
Whether he wanted to be here, whether he cared to be here, whether he wanted to restore his reputation after a previous year of injury and tumult in San Antonio, that had to be learned along the way. And who exactly were the Raptors getting for the much beloved DeMar DeRozan?
They knew the talent. They knew the hand size. They knew the defensive abilities. They knew he could score, maybe not like he did. They knew he was a previous Finals MVP. But you never really know a player until you have him. They thought Leonard would impact the way the team played. What they didn’t know was how much he would wind up impacting just about everything.
He made Nurse’s job easier when he played. Sometimes you could see him making eye contact or saying something to Nurse. Maybe he was calling a play or asking for a time out or suggesting something. Leonard proved to be something of a basketball savant this season in Toronto. Part player. Part instructor. Part coach. His focus on what mattered, winning, spread throughout the team.
Kyle Lowry played with more calm and less emotion than ever before. He did that in a year in which his best friend had been traded away and he left no secret that he wasn’t happy about the deal. He could have easily gotten in the way here. Instead, he and Leonard formed a bond that made the Raptors stronger.
The athletic Pascal Siakam was a discovery. They knew he had talent. They didn’t know he had this much. The acquisition of Marc Gasol was the perfect final pickup. He was an emotional on-court version of Leonard’s calm. Off the court, on the bench, passing the ball, changing and lengthening the Raptors offence, being a pro, being mature, made him a perfect final piece for all that Ujiri and Webster put together.
But everything came back to Leonard. When the Raptors the opening night of the playoffs, the question was, why didn’t Kawhi play more. When he played more, they won the next four games.
In a second-round series that could have gone either way — Philadelphia and Toronto were that close — Leonard was huge when he had to be, scoring 45, 39, 21 and 41 in the four Toronto wins. And of course hitting that remarkable arching jumper that bounced and bounced its way to a last second victory against Philadelphia.
In Game 3 against Milwaukee, with the possibility of going down 3-0 in the series, Kawhi played 52 minutes in a double overtime win. If the Raptors lose that game, they lose in the Eastern Conference final.
The Raptors could have the title in Game 5 against Golden State, when the ball came to Kawhi in the final seconds and he was double-teamed. He quickly passed to Fred VanVleet, who quickly passed to Lowry, who had a last second shot to win the championship. The shot got partially blocked. In Game 6 in Oakland, Lowry seemed inspired by the previous game, took over against the Warriors, led the Raptors to the first championship (non Olympic) of his basketball life. The Warriors overcompensated for Kawhi and Lowry early and VanVleet late were on fire, leading to the championship win.
Leonard celebrated, smiled broadly, put on a scuba mask to protect his eyes and headed off to Las Vegas to party. He is a Raptor and probably won’t be by the end of the month. But he will be a Raptor forever, Toronto’s forever. This championship wasn’t a one-man show but thoroughly impossible without Leonard. Impossible and incredible. A story and a season of our sporting lives.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019