The player is different. The team is different. The mission is the same. The Golden State Warriors, the best team of this decade, stand in the way of a great talent leading his team to the ultimate promised land. The Cleveland Cavaliers had never won a NBA Finals Championship until Lebron finally got them over the edge in 2016. The Toronto Raptors have never won a Championship and had continually fallen short of expectations to reach their first NBA Finals. While Kawhi Leonard has not yet achieved Lebron James’ level of greatness, one would be hard pressed to ignore the historic playoffs that Leonard has been having. And now, he has the opportunity to accomplish what Lebron achieved three years ago, to take down the Golden State Warriors.
Kawhi Leonard is averaging 31.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. James averaged 26.3 points per game in his 2016 title run with Cleveland. He is also averaging a whopping 21.3 field goal attempts per game, which is just about five shots higher than his 2016-17 playoffs run with the San Antonio Spurs. Leonard has gone up against Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler. He shot the game winner in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers in the most dramatic fashion arguably ever seen for a last second shot. For all intents and purposes, Leonard has reached another level in his game, and it just might be enough to will the Raptors to an NBA Title.
Leonard has continually proved his critics wrong, and he certainly had his fair share of controversy with the tumultuous end to his tenure in San Antonio. Leonard’s trade to Toronto was considered a questionable gamble for the Raptors. Leonard only had one year remaining on his contract, and the prospect of joining a team that was not among his preferred destinations left questions about his commitment to his new home. Yet, the professional nature with which Leonard has handled this opportunity exhibits his true character and work ethic. League sources had said,
“Leonard is scheduled to enter free agency in 2019 and has no intention to commit to Toronto long-term… a very tough sell.”
Leonard may very well still relish a move elsewhere when free agency hits in just a few weeks, but, should he lead the Raptors to their first ever NBA Title in their first NBA Finals appearance, fans should not harbor any hard feelings. At the same time, this unprecedented playoff run just might be enough to convince Kawhi that he could become the face of an entire franchise that has only existed since 1995 when Leonard was just four years old.
A star player is not the only component of an NBA Championship team. Lebron had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Leonard has Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Pascal Siakam among many other important pieces. Golden State are not the Orlando Magic, the Milwaukee Bucks or the Philadelphia 76ers. Golden State are flush with Finals experience. The players have been in this situation many times and know how to manage the pressure. Should Kevin Durant be healthy to play at any point in the series, then the Warriors are heavy favorites. Still, that does not mean they are unbeatable.
The Toronto Raptors are the perfect underdog story. They have finally been able to reach their first ever NBA Finals on the back of great player looking to cement his place as perhaps the best player in the game. Head Coach Nick Nurse was a coach for the Brighton Bears in the British Basketball League. His first NBA coaching job was only last year with the team that he has now led to the NBA Finals. As a manager with such little experience at the highest level this achievement goes to show the innate coaching capabilities of Nick Nurse. Seasoned veteran, Kyle Lowry, who is now 33 years old, finally has the opportunity to win a Championship with the Raptors. He has been a major piece of Toronto’s consistency among the best in the Eastern Conference since his arrival from Houston.
These and other intriguing storylines have become engrained in the thoughts of viewers in anticipation to Game 1 on Thursday. The catalyst, however, is Kawhi Leonard. He can be the leader of a Championship team, and become firmly planted in the history books and in the hearts of anyone rooting for the Raptors to upset the Warriors. Lest we forget that the Raptors have home court advantage in this series, which will be absolutely pivotal. This 7 game series will undoubtedly be the most arduous challenge of Leonard’s nine year career. If he can get hold of the NBA title, he will have not only achieved what Lebron James did in 2016 with Cleveland, but also would have done so in a manner of pure dominance that we have not seen since the likes of Michael Jordan.
Credit-Unsplash: Abhishek Chandra