Thanks to Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors finally have their chance in the NBA Finals

Thanks to Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors finally have their chance in the NBA Finals

It was 4am British Summer Time when I probably woke up the Wellington household. No, this wasn’t me returning drunk from the night’s festivity. This was a basketball fan, cheering on a franchise that, for so long, had been humiliated and underappreciated.

Finally, Raptors fans can say. We’ve done it.

For note, I’m not actually a Raptors fan but as the team I first saw live, I have a certain degree of affection towards them. And I once spent two hours (RIP Dial-up) downloading Vince Carter’s 12-minute long dunk contest; the first NBA moment I ever watched. The rest as they say is history. Anyway…

For so long, the organisation from north of the American border was considered an outsider, a franchise that – for all intents and purposes – was just there to make up the numbers. But last night, in front of an adoring home crowd and more than 16,000 fans outside, with millions more watching worldwide, the Toronto Raptors booked their tickets to the franchise’s first NBA Finals.

24 years in the making.

I guess their opening night hype video had a point…

It was a historic night for a franchise that in recent seasons, had undergone serious heartbreak, after heartbreak. They were the sort of losses that had, unfortunately, led to a consistent state of doubt, which crossed every Raptors fans’ minds each and every April; even if they wouldn’t publicly admit to it.

Last year it was LeBron James’ game-winner over rookie forward OG Anunoby, which became the catalyst for the events that sent Kawhi Leonard to this team and ultimately built this version of the Raptors, stacked with talent in both the starting line-up and bench. Before that it was – yep, you guessed it – LeBron James in 2017 and 2016 again and the misery didn’t end there.

In 2015 and 2014, it was Paul Pierce. He downed the North on both occasions as a member of the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets, respectively. The latter of which was a Game 7 heartbreaker in a year that the Raptors had finally returned to the postseason for the first time since 2008. And whilst we can talk about Vince Carter’s graduation controversy or DeMar DeRozan’s multi-year no-shows until the cows come home, that’s enough of the past.

This postseason has erased those memories and replaced them with some truly unforgettable ones. Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 game-winner was the start, perhaps the single biggest moment in franchise history.  At least, that was until last night – a night that ended with an Eastern Conference title and 20,000 people chanting “MVP”.

This was a Game 6 with all the hallmarks of a Game 7 and the Raptors had to treat it as such. The prospect of a Game 7 on the road is not one that anyone would take comfort from, and it looked to be heading that way early on, as the home team found themselves in a 15-point deficit (which at the time, gave them a 4.6%  chance to win).

It was the sort of lead that, in the past, would have had Raptors fans plunging their head into their hands – “here we go again”. But this postseason has been different, and with Kawhi Leonard on the hardwood and the best fans in the NBA behind you, you’ve always got a chance.

I just want to win. I don’t care about being the best player. I want to be the best team. I’ve always said that. Just before the season when we made the trade, Masai felt that way about me. He told me how he felt and why he made the trade. It’s turning out well now. We’re in the Finals, and we’re not done yet.

Kawhi Leonard on Masai Ujiri calling him the best player in the world.

Kawhi’s averages for the postseason and this series are quite simply stunning. Across 18 games Leonard has averaged 38.7 minutes. He’s averaging 31.2 points per game, shooting 38.8 percent from three and 50.7 percent overall, grabbing 8.8 rebounds, and serving as Toronto’s equivalent to a T-800. That’s a Terminator with living tissue over a metal endoskeleton, just in case you didn’t know. He has seven games with 35 plus points and he’s the NBA Playoffs leader in points, field goals made, minutes and steals.

In the Bucks series, he became the tip of the spear for a defense which has been terrifying, turning the previously highly efficient Milwaukee Bucks offense into a suddenly stagnant, slightly confused unit. Toronto played like it wanted in Game 6, and Leonard led the charge.

And Kawhi is like, I don’t know how many more good things I can say about him. He’s just so good. And again, I’m seeing a level of competitive greatness out of him. It’s just his willing us to win and him grabbing those rebounds and willing those shots in almost it seems like and going down and locking up somebody and taking the ball from them. It is what it is; it’s great competitive desire.

Nick Nurse on the greatness of Kawhi.

Many of us who have grown up watching Kawhi, have been amazed by his personal development. We have marvelled at his ability to effect the game on both ends of the court. The change is astonishing.

When he entered the league in 2011, the notion of him becoming an offensive threat was laughable. After all, his offensive numbers didn’t exactly leap off the page, and even his back-to-back Finals appearances didn’t suggest we were looking at a player who could average 31.2 per game and carry the offensive load for a team. What it did suggest, was that the player we were watching had monumental room for growth.

When Kawhi made his first appearance in the Finals in 2013, he averaged 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds, during which the Spurs lost in seven. We all remember that series.

A year later, his points total jumped slightly to 17.8 points, which was a good improvement but nothing truly notable. What was interesting, however, was the efficiency at which he had begun to hit his shots. Kawhi averaged 61 percent shooting during that second Finals appearance and was named NBA Finals MVP at the age of 22 and 351 days old, to be exact.

In 2015, he won the Defensive Player of the Year Award and, two years later, he was named to the All-NBA First Team for the second time. Then it happened. An injury-plagued season. 2018 would see him hampered and his name dwindle.

Now, the year is 2019, Kawhi’s back on the scene and the notion of viewing him as purely a defensive specialist is faint in the memory.

Last night was just another moment in Kawhi Leonard’s fairytale season, leading the Raptors with another epic performance, finishing with 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists and one huge slam over the soon-to-be-crowned Most Valuable Player, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Thanks to his performances, the Raptors now move onto their Finals match-up with the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the best team on the planet. As Nick Nurse said during the final sentence of his postgame interview: “It will be a tall task, but we’ll try to figure it out.”

Kawhi’s greatest feat, may yet be ahead.

Game 1 of the NBA Finals takes place in Toronto Friday morning (2am). You can catch it live on Sky Sports Arena and NBA League Pass.

Feature photo – John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington