OAKLAND, Calif. — Behind Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors fans were just beginning their joyous celebration. As Leonard stood on the court and answered questions from ESPN analyst Doris Burke, the visitors gathered in a corner of Oracle Arena and grew louder by the second. If Leonard noticed, you couldn’t tell.
He finished the interview and walked away, never looking back at the noise. The Raptors had just taken a commanding 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals with a 105-92 victory over Golden State on Friday night. It could have been the Warriors’ last game at Oracle Arena, and Toronto fans were reveling in ruining the moment, overtaking the building with their chants and waving “We The North” and Canadian flags.
It was stunning to watch the NBA’s greatest home-court advantage transform into a road-court party. However, Leonard kept his head lowered and his eyes on his sneakers. With his neutral body language, you had no idea whether he had won or lost or just exited the dentist’s office.
It goes without saying that the Warriors, the two-time defending champions and winners of three of the past four NBA titles, are in trouble. But this is a peculiar kind of danger, perhaps the worst they could face, because they have to break the unbreakable. Leonard is a champion, too, having helped San Antonio beat Miami in 2014. That triumph ended the Heat’s superteam phenomenon. With a victory in Game 5 on Monday in Toronto, Leonard could be a part of the destruction of the Warriors.
Leonard is unflappable, and it appears the Raptors have taken on his identity. They are stone-faced and unimpressed. They are focused. They just swept two games at Oracle Arena against a team that has been intent on closing out an era in a gleeful manner. The Warriors may be hobbled and without Kevin Durant, but they still carry an intimidating championship aura. It gives them a significant edge over most teams — even elite ones. The Raptors are unfazed.
You can be that way when you have Leonard, the league’s stealthiest assassin. He’s not loud. He’s not flashy. But he’s there. He’s always there. He scored 36 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and snatched four steals in Game 4 seemingly without breaking a sweat, definitely without breaking a smile. He doesn’t dominate games in brilliant flashes like Stephen Curry often does. He’s an extended-release superstar; his game is one long, consistent display of greatness.
With Leonard, the opposition never seems to catch a break. And now all of the Raptors are playing that way. The Warriors are used to imposing their will with their shooting, ball movement, defense and versatility. Toronto is matching them in every area and exceeding them in versatility. Golden State’s injuries are a major factor, but ask Portland how difficult it is to exploit this team even when it’s limited. The Raptors are doing something special. They deserve to be on the cusp of their first championship. They aren’t simply benefiting from the Warriors’ limitations. They are adding their own layers of difficulty.
They’re not satisfied. Leonard won’t let them be satisfied.
You hear him say, “It’s not over yet.” And you hear Kyle Lowry say, “We haven’t done anything.” Follow the leader, no matter how quiet and mercurial he can be. Leonard can be so weird that he turns a teammate’s pregame fist-bump attempt into an awkward moment. But he’s also the steadying influence on a team that used to have a reputation for shrinking in the biggest moments.
“His demeanor has kind of taken a big part of our team,” Lowry said. “We have some guys that are fiery and feisty, but we all kind of just stay levelheaded and never get too up, never get too down. . . . And with the demeanor that we have, Kawhi definitely brought a lot to that.”
When asked to anticipate how it would feel to bring a championship to Toronto, Leonard paused for several seconds, exhaled and began by saying, “I’m not really sure.” He doesn’t do “what-if.”
The Raptors needed to play from ahead. Now the stoic Leonard can take them home. Even if the Warriors mount a rally — and it says here that they will — Leonard still looms as the star controlling this series. And he’s unlikely to fall apart.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to rattle Kawhi,” Golden State forward Draymond Green said. “Not sure we used that word one time in our scouting report — we’re going to ‘rattle’ him. No. You just try to make him take tough shots, and you live with the results.”
While Leonard doesn’t play with Jordan-esque flair, his game isn’t boring. His athleticism, strength and balance are extraordinary. He makes difficult shots look easy. He just doesn’t draw attention to himself after doing the amazing.
“He imposed his will on the game, and all the other guys followed him,” Green said.
For years, as Toronto kept losing to LeBron James in the playoffs, it had been obvious that the Raptors were a superstar away from graduating to a true championship level. And so Masai Ujiri gambled and traded for Leonard last offseason, ignoring his desire to play out the final year of his contract and entertain his free agency options this summer. It doesn’t seem like such a risk anymore.
“He’s lifted us a lot of times with big buckets or runs of buckets or just that settling bucket when the place is going crazy, and he’ll calmly sink one to kind of quiet the crowd,” Toronto Coach Nick Nurse said.
Oracle Arena is silent now, perhaps forever. If the Warriors can’t extend the series and play one more game in the building that has been their home since 1971, the last sounds will be the screams of the Raptors fans who made the joint their own. The scene was surreal. It was the kind of jarring moment necessary to remind everyone that this series isn’t just about Golden State’s problems. It’s also about Toronto’s excellence.
And with Leonard out front and shunning all premature celebration, the Raptors are primed to take down a dynasty.