Kawhi Leonard, Kawhi Leonard, Kawhi Leonard.
What started as one of NBA’s most drawn out and confounding storylines has resulted in the Toronto Raptors’ first finals appearance in the history of the 24-year history. A disgruntled superstar, a team treading water looking for a new engine to spark dominance in a pool for the taking; once he came aboard, his future on the team never seemed certain, and it strangely still doesn’t. He’s an enigmatic figure, and when you’re that good at basketball, such a public persona only adds a coveted layer of mystique that can only be cut by the man it surrounds.
So, a new captain commands the ranks of the East, should be chosen to accept the position come June 30th.
The Bucks, who won the first two games in the series only to get a backdoor sweep in the last four, started off strong. They led by as much as 15, only for it to be quashed by a 26-3 run by the raptors which was capped with a symbolic claw-handed dunk by Kawhi Leonard over Giannis Antetokounmpo. Leonard sat out for an increasingly rare moment of rest at the end of the first and Milwaukee’s regular season defense re-emerged. Without Leonard on the floor to worry about, they ran up the lead. Key adjustments from Coach Budenholzer include the complete absence of Nikola Mirotic, who had been a liability even in reduced minutes. His replacement, former-Buck, and charge-drawing savant, Ersan Ilyasova, contributed a healthy 13 points on 3-7 shooting and six rebounds.
Antetokounmpo, who had been held down by Leonard’s new job as his personal neutralizer, got him switched off at will in the first half. Late in the second quarter, Fred Van Fleet took on the task of the freak on a drive, only to force it out, a comparatively small guard firmly in his mitt. Each Raptor played disciplined defense and someone as comparatively small as Van Fleet managing to stand his ground against the titan-esque Antetokounmpo shows the head down mentality they took to this game. Nick Nurse opted to roll-out their formidable wall defense around the paint in the fourth, as seen in game six.
The Raptors full offensive capabilities were on display Saturday night. With the gift of a poor shooting spurt from Khris Middleton in game five, the Raptors didn’t have such luxuries in their triumphant return home. Things looked grim after a slow start from Leonard, however, his supporting cast carried the weight in a near equal distribution. Van Fleet, who has been seemingly infallible since the birth of his son mid-series, went 4-5 from the arc. Kyle Lowry hit 17 with eight of the team’s 20 assists on 36 made field goals. “You know, we’re gonna let the big dog eat, I’m always gonna go with my guy that can finish with the best of them. That’s what he did” said Lowry of his now familiar partner-in-hoops, Leonard. With Leonard exhausted from his previous five games of heroics, he put up a slightly less glamorous 27 points, continuing his playmaking strides from the weekday prior with seven assists.
Towards the end of the game, Leonard put up a three that bounced off the front of the rim. With the clock nearing expiration and their lead precariously balanced on his 19 second-half points, he launched himself from the perimeter into the paint, which may as well be wide open, and pulled down his 17th and final rebound of the night. No one on the Bucks boxed out, and it’s hard to imagine them stopping him even if they tried. Kawhi Leonard is the best player in the Eastern Conference and he has been all season long. His historic showing in the qualifying rounds of the playoffs put him in the Toronto history books, he now faces the supposed ‘greatest team ever assembled.
“Oh man, like you just said, they’re the champions,” said Leonard in his characteristically emotionally-metered post-game interview. “We gotta go in, have the mental focus, and enjoy the challenge.” Perhaps his incomparable calm and is rubbing off on the rest of the Raptors, and considering this is the team’s first finals appearance, it may be what they needed all along. The 2019 NBA Finals kick off on May 30th against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.