OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Kawhi Leonard’s first season with the Toronto Raptors started with his now-infamous laugh.
It ended with him getting the last laugh.
The best player on the league’s newly crowned best team is an NBA Finals MVP for the second time. Toronto finally sits atop the basketball universe, with Leonard averaging 28.5 points in a six-game finals victory over the Golden State Warriors to lead the Raptors to their first championship.
He arguably ended any debate about who the best two-way player in the sport is at this moment.
“This is what I play basketball for,” Leonard said. “This is what I work out for.”
The King of the North, as they’ve been calling Leonard in Toronto, was King of the Playoffs. He’s the third player to win Finals MVP with two franchises, joining only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James.
“I think he’s the best two-way basketball player in the NBA,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “He just goes. You know, I’ve seen some stuff from him this year that you just say, ‘Wow.’ You do. You say, ‘Wow.’ You appreciate the work that he’s put in. He works extremely hard at his game and works extremely hard on his body. And he loves this basketball thing. Loves it.”
Perhaps never more so than Thursday night.
After missing most of last season with a leg injury, after having his commitment questioned, after getting traded to Toronto, Leonard returned to basketball’s mountaintop. He thrust both arms high into the air when it was over, letting out a scream of joy. He even allowed himself a tiny smile when he hoisted the MVP trophy.
“He’s just a competitor,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “We respect that, for sure. He’s shown that again this entire playoff run.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo will probably win the NBA’s MVP award in a couple of weeks. James Harden and Paul George are the other finalists. And while all three of those players had marvelous regular seasons, the postseason was Leonard’s personal showcase.
He scored 732 points in the playoffs. Only Michael Jordan (759) and James (748) ever scored more in a single postseason. Leonard finished with 14 games of 30 points or more in these playoffs. The only players with more in a single postseason are Jordan (16 in 1992), Hakeem Olajuwon (16 in 1995) and Kobe Bryant (15 in 2009).
“Without a doubt, the best thing about this thing is that somehow I wound up on the sideline getting to watch this guy play up close,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who won an NBA title in his first season as a head coach in the league. “It’s really cool.”
Leonard was the unquestioned leader. When the Raptors lost Game 2 of the NBA Finals at home and surrendered home-court advantage in the series, Nurse walked into a very glum locker room and reminded his team that it merely needed to win either Game 3 or Game 4 at Oracle Arena to reclaim control of the series.
Some nodded in agreement.
Leonard offered an expletive instead, and urged his team to win both.
They got both.
And then, on their return trip to Oakland for Game 6, they got one more. They closed Oracle with a title-clincher.
“I don’t know that any people will argue with me that he’s the best two-way player in the NBA,” Raptors President Masai Ujiri said.
Getting Leonard was just one of a bold series of moves Ujiri made in the last 12 months. He fired last season’s coach of the year in Dwane Casey and hired Nurse. He traded away three players at midseason for Marc Gasol. And he took the risk that Leonard would be both happy enough and healthy enough to take the Raptors to the newest and highest of heights.
The trade that sent DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Leonard was high-risk, high-reward. Leonard was acquired on July 18 and formally introduced as training camp was beginning on Sept. 24. He can become a free agent on June 30 and he’ll almost certainly make in excess of $32 million next season no matter how long a deal he ends up signing — and whether that’s in Toronto or someplace else.
“This is the place for him,” Ujiri said.
Leonard texted Lowry on the day the trade went down, and planted the seed that they could do something special together.
“And we are here today,” Leonard said, champagne dripping off his shirt.
Regardless of what’s next, Leonard’s memorable postseason won’t soon be forgotten.
There was the four-bounce-off-the-rim, at-the-buzzer jump shot from the corner to beat Philadelphia in Game 7 of the second round. A 15-point fourth quarter to lift the Raptors past Milwaukee in the pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. A 17-point third quarter at Oracle Arena in Game 4 of the finals, as the Raptors took control of the game and the series.
“You can always see in his eyes that at any given time he can kind of take over,” Pascal Siakam said.
Leonard can be thought of as enigmatic or anti-social.
He’s not really either of those things. He’s just quiet.
His path has not been an easy one. He wasn’t highly recruited in high school. By the time bigger colleges were calling, he was committed to San Diego State. He wasn’t even a lottery pick, getting taken No. 15 in the 2011 draft — behind the likes of Derrick Williams, Tristan Thompson, Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo, Jimmer Fredette and Alec Burks, none of whom averaged 10 points per game for their NBA careers.
He rarely opens up about anything. He doesn’t talk about his private life. He hardly ever discusses the murder of his father, which happened when Leonard was playing in high school. He scored 17 points in a game the day after his father was shot and killed, perhaps the ultimate proof that he’s always been capable of blocking out everything else when he steps onto a court.
“Once it happened, I thought about it a lot,” Leonard said. “But as I got older, I pretty much just really stopped thinking about it. I think it just gave me a sense and feel that life and basketball are two different things and just really enjoy your time and moments. Like I always say, this is basketball; just go out there and have fun. These are going to be the best years of my life, playing this game.”
The best year yet just happened.
And with Leonard just entering his prime, there might be much more to come.