Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors are both mutually validated heading into this year’s NBA finals. For the Raptors, it is high-reward earned from the high-risk of breaking up one of the NBA’s best bromances for a potential one-year rental. For Kawhi, it has been a stubborn one-and-a-half legged blitz of the Eastern conference that came a year after public questions of his loyalty as a teammate and Gregg Popovich dismissing him as “not a leader or anything.”
Now that they are here no one is seeking a pat on the back. The Raptors have designs on stealing an NBA title in a season where no one thought that Golden State would see any serious competition from the post-LeBron Eastern Conference. In order to shock the world, Kawhi will need to cement one more trick in his bag.
Kawhi is in the midst of one of the greatest post-season performances of all time. After returning from injury, Leonard showed little rust averaging a career-high 26.6 points per game and displaying the type of two-way dominance we were accustomed to seeing from him in San Antonio. That momentum has clearly carried over to the post-season. The Klaw has shredded his way through the East despite visibly limping, most notably during the Eastern Conference finals.
As Amazing as Leonard has been, the Golden State Warriors are heavily favored coming into this series and for good reason. They have faced and snuffed out one-man wrecking crews with regularity during their playoff runs, most recently wearing down James Harden and Damian Lillard who both saw their shots become harder to come by when facing Golden State.
Against the Trail Blazers, the Golden State Warriors often fueled their multiple comeback victories with increased pressure on screens for Damian Lillard. Lillard was forced to give the ball up earlier to big men that were further away from the basket. Golden State wants to turn the other team’s star into a playmaker.
Kawhi will get his points in the flow of the game the Warrior’s style of trapping combined with a possible Kevin Durant appearance will make things a little more difficult than normal. Kawhi’s playmaking abilities may be the only statistical dent in his game. Of the top-10 points-per-game scorers this season, only Paul George and C.J. McCollum averaged less than Leonard’s 3.8 assists per game.
Leonard’s playmaking in the Eastern Conference Finals was the most impressive aspect of his game in a series where he thoroughly outplayed the likely-MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo on both ends of the floor. He had 16 assists in the last two games and all of his them in game 5 went for 3-pointers. Leonard has been showing the ability to add an efficient passing game to an already finely tuned offensive package. This development could not come at a better time for Toronto.
A large part of the Raptors’ success will hinge on Kawhi’s ability to take his newfound playmaking skills and turn them up another level against some of the league’s smartest defenders. Golden State can trap more aggressively than most because Draymond Green has the unique ability to cover two offensive players on an island. Kawhi will have to see double teams coming and make the right read to get the ball to open shooters. Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, and Danny Green will all need to be consistent and ready to knock some shots down to get Golden State away from Leonard. If Kawhi can consistently make the right reads Toronto has a puncher’s chance every night.
Kawhi Leonard has taken the city of Toronto to a place it has never been before by elevating his game beyond any level he has ever played. If he can be an above-average playmaker for the next two weeks there may be some hardware in Jurassic Park when it’s all said and done.