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As Kawhi Leonard moved to center stage for his moment with Bill Russell, his San Antonio Spurs teammates raised their arms, grabbed a wrist with one hand and splayed the fingers of the other as wide as possible. The group “Klaw” sign, an homage to Leonard’s mammoth mitts, was accompanied by joyous roughhousing to celebrate their 2014 title.
The then-22-year-old forward became the NBA’s youngest Finals MVP other than Magic Johnson, largely on the strength of his defense against Miami Heat star LeBron James. Suddenly, it appeared that Gregg Popovich had another budding franchise player to take the baton from Tim Duncan. “It’s all surreal to me,” Leonard kept repeating.
“Surreal” is the right word to describe the YouTube video of the moment, which feels like a time capsule from a different era, even though it took place less than five years ago. Popovich, elated by avenging a 2013 loss to Miami, looks a decade younger than he does today. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw have all retired, while Tony Parker now toils in semiretirement as a Charlotte Hornets backup. ESPN broadcaster Stuart Scott, onstage next to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, died in 2015 after battling cancer.
Elsewhere, James, the target of Leonard’s obsessive defense, hadn’t yet penned his return letter to Northeast Ohio, made “3-1 lead” into an eternal meme or cashed out to Hollywood. And the Golden State Warriors had yet to fully unleash Stephen Curry or promote Draymond Green to the starting lineup, let alone woo Kevin Durant.
Just as the NBA has changed dramatically since 2014, so too has Leonard. During that playoff run, he posted modest averages of 14.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists. Thanks to his three-and-D profile, he was cast as an X-factor in a Finals loaded with Hall of Fame talent on both teams.
Leonard, now 27, is finally playing for a title again, after leading the Toronto Raptors past the Milwaukee Bucks in six games in the Eastern Conference finals. During an overwhelming run to these Finals, the three-time all-star has averaged 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists with a much heavier offensive workload than he had in San Antonio. After years of diligent work on his ballhandling, shot-creation and playmaking, Leonard has become Option A and Option B for Toronto, especially late in games. He drilled a series-winning jumper to eliminate the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, and he regularly took over in the fourth quarter to put away the Bucks.
The past five years have been full of trials. In 2015, the Spurs were eliminated in the first round by the Los Angeles Clippers as Popovich surprisingly cut Leonard’s minutes in Game 7. In 2016, they were eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder, with Durant outdueling Leonard and Duncan riding off into retirement. In 2017, Leonard emerged as an MVP candidate, only to see his season go to waste with an ankle sprain when Zaza Pachulia slid underneath him during the Western Conference finals. In 2018, a leg injury and miscommunication and mistrust between Leonard and the Spurs led him to appear in just nine games and to stay away from the team during the playoffs.
Leonard’s first season in Toronto after a summer trade has been a resurgent and unqualified triumph, but it has required adjustment and patience. Reports initially indicated that he didn’t want to be traded to the Raptors, and rumors persist that he still might leave as a free agent this summer. Leonard missed nearly a quarter of the 2018-19 season due to “load management” — a strategy that successfully preserved his body for the playoffs but also led many observers to overlook him and the Raptors.
Given that Durant is still sidelined because of a calf strain and “unlikely to play at the beginning of the series,” according to the team, Leonard will enter these Finals as its central force. Toronto, viewed by oddsmakers as the clear underdog against the back-to-back champs, will look to him for answers at every turn.
Just like James five years ago, he will be the alpha dog orchestrating against intelligent and disciplined all-league defenders. To pull the upset, Leonard will need to score in volume and set off chains of passes against Golden State’s high-pressure traps. He will also be a defensive linchpin, possibly seeing time on all four Warriors stars: Curry, Klay Thompson, Green and Durant (should he return).
This will be a very different Finals than the one that helped make Leonard a household name five years ago. He no longer defers or plays in anyone’s shadow, he isn’t surrounded by legends, and he isn’t coached by one of the sport’s all-time greats. Crucially, he won’t be leading a team-wide plan to slow a single superstar. Instead, he will be on the receiving end of such an effort.
Beating the Warriors would deliver a validation few could have predicted during his extended time away from the court, and it would probably crown him as the “Best Player in Basketball.” Those are weighty stakes, but making it this far has been an incredible achievement in its own right.