This is payback for Zaza Pachulia. This is for making a potentially historic 67-win season seem forgettable. This is a revenge tour. This is Kawhi Leonard’s masterpiece.
The Toronto Raptors forward is about to dethrone one of the best teams of all-time, but not for the first time. The Golden State Warriors were in a similar situation two years ago until Pachulia took the extra step underneath Leonard. The then Spur, landed on the Georgian’s foot and collapsed in a heap, never to return to the NBA Playoffs at the AT&T Center again.
The following season was frustrating and confusing for Spurs fans. The NBA’s most well-run organisation saw the league’s best fans divide over whether or not Leonard should return from injury. Some sided with the player, who was sure to become a franchise cornerstone for the next 10 years – while the majority sided with head coach Gregg Popovich and the team’s front office. And with good reason, Popovich and his team had successfully managed the likes of David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker through injuries to extend their careers and lead the franchise to five championships.
It caused upset, heartache and ultimately resulted in distress for Leonard, the rest of the team, the staff and the team’s fanbase. After months of trying to resolve the issue — the only result was to move Leonard on to a new team.
For Spurs fans, Kawhi’s successful run this year with his new team has been bittersweet. Few wanted him to succeed and this season – averaging 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals in 60 games – has in many ways been rubbing salt into San Antonio’s wound. Or it certainly felt that way.
But now, back in the NBA Finals, on the precipice of ending a dynastic run of success for the same team that struck him down as he entered his prime. Spurs fans can take a step back from the saltiness that has stuck with them all season.
Maybe Leonard feels differently. Maybe there is still a hangover of frustration from last season for him. But San Antonio needs to move on.
One way to do this is to look at Leonard’s run to the Finals with the Raptors, and throw its support behind him and them. The truth is, the Spurs were in no place to have won the title this year. Even if Leonard had stayed, the team would still be in a partial rebuild; recovering from the loss of Kyle Anderson, Tony Parker and the retirement of Manu Ginobili. And Toronto wouldn’t be where they are either, without another former Spur, Danny Green who just happened to also be included in that trade. A three-point shooting, defensive specialist who was long-rumoured to be an expendable asset for San Antonio. Perhaps the team would have still made the playoffs (I’m not sure it’s possible for the Spurs to miss it), but a championship would have been a stretch.
Toronto on the other hand, has been one piece away for a few seasons now. Either Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan had to be sacrificed to bring in a player like Leonard, who could take the team one step further than they had been able to in previous seasons.
When Pachulia and the Warriors ended the Spurs very possible title run and future championship hopes in the 2017 NBA Playoffs — San Antonio wanted revenge.
The current situation is probably the quickest way to achieve that. It might be a dish served cold for fans of the silver and black, but seeing Kawhi mentally and emotionally destroy the Warriors – with a little help from friends – still tastes great. And this is the reason I will be cheering for the Raptors. And why I will be supporting Leonard.
Long may his success continue.
Sidenote: I look forward to the Spurs meeting him and the Raptors in the 2021 Finals, when it will be San Antonio’s turn to destroy a multiple-time champion from Toronto, under the direction of head coach Becky Hammon.
Feature photo – Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press / USA Today / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington