TORONTO — When Kawhi Leonard was growing up in Southern California, he dreamed — like many others — of having the ball in his hands with the outcome on the line in the biggest of games.
And as Leonard has gone through this playoff run with the Toronto Raptors, leading them to the NBA Finals and to a 1-0 lead in this best-of-seven series against the Golden State Warriors, he has done exactly that.
So has this run with Toronto been the most fun Leonard has had in his NBA career?
“Obviously, it’s a lot more fun when you’re getting plays called for you and you’re able to live your childhood dream in being able to shoot the ball 20 times a game,” he said. “The offense is coming toward you, rather than just being out there doing one job. Because, when you first come in as a rookie, unless you’re like a top-10 player, you’re really not going to touch the floor a whole lot, or get the offense run through you.
“That kind of throws you off, or for me just like puts you in a box somewhat. You have to figure out a way to have fun. Like I said, being a child, I didn’t envision myself just being in a box in the NBA. But once that time comes, I feel like you’re just having more fun and you’re able to experience the game and grow as a player, making plays, seeing double teams and finding other guys.
“It just gets more fun. You’re able to do a lot more.”
It’s safe to say Leonard doesn’t have to worry about being stuck in a box any longer. That’s been the case for a few years now, after he stunned the basketball world and emerged from relative obscurity — he was the No. 15 pick in the 2011 NBA draft out of San Diego State — to become the best two-way player in the sport.
But he was doing that in San Antonio, playing alongside future Hall of Famers in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and for arguably the greatest coach of all time in Gregg Popovich. Upon arriving in Toronto by trade this past offseason, the franchise was handed over to Leonard, with the goal of spending the 11 months between when the deal was consummated in late July until this summer — when Leonard will be an unrestricted free agent — convincing him Toronto is the place he should stay.
Given how this season has turned out, the sales pitch couldn’t have worked better. The Raptors cruised to 58 wins in the regular season and the second-best record in the NBA (behind Milwaukee). Leonard played 60 games, with Toronto working with him diligently to be as healthy as possible come playoff time. And once the postseason arrived, Leonard turned into a world-destroying force, carrying Toronto past the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals and the Bucks in the East finals — a performance that has firmly placed him back in the debate of who is the best player in the sport.
Three more wins over the Warriors will make his argument for that top spot close to unassailable. But as Toronto claimed Game 1, Leonard didn’t have the same kind of incredible performance he’s recreated time and again during this postseason run. His numbers — 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists — while great by most standards, were rather ordinary by his incredibly lofty ones, including going 5 for 14 from the field.
That Leonard again was caught on camera limping at times during Game 1 — just as he was during the Bucks series — was cause for concern in many quarters even after Toronto’s win.
The only people who seem unconcerned about the state of Leonard’s health, however, are members of the Raptors themselves.
“Yeah, I don’t think the leg trouble is much of an issue,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said Saturday.
“And I’m expecting him to play a lot better tomorrow.”
Publicly and privately throughout Toronto’s playoff run, the same line has been repeated: The talk of Leonard playing through an injury has been overstated by those outside the team.
The concern about Leonard’s health is understandable, given he was traded here by the San Antonio Spurs last summer after playing just nine games in 2017-18 due to tendinopathy in his left quad. But his performances during this playoffs have backed up the belief that he’s more than capable of playing to the level that’s required for Toronto to win the three more games they need to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time.
Meanwhile, the Raptors would point to the way Golden State attacked Leonard in Game 1 — often doing anything it could to ensure he wouldn’t beat it — as a bigger cause for his mundane play than any issues physically.
And given how that attention on Leonard manifested itself across the rest of the court, with Pascal Siakam scoring 32 points, Marc Gasol 20 and Fred VanVleet 15, the Raptors won’t be terribly upset if things remain the same.
“I come into the game just trying to win,” Leonard said. “If I have my mindset on just trying to score the ball, yeah, it could be difficult. But I’m trying to make the right play out there, and obviously if there are two people on me, somebody is open.
“It’s really not about me. If they play defense like that, guys are going to step up and make shots. All I could do is keep making the right play. When I do get a free look, make my shots and go back on the other end and play defense.
“It’s just not about me scoring or trying to get my offense off. It’s a whole collective group out there playing basketball.”
That has been Toronto’s ethos throughout its run. And yet, time and again, it has been Leonard at the center of everything the Raptors have done. The days of him being a rookie in San Antonio spending time guarding the best player on the other team, and largely staying out of the way of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, are long behind him.
Now, after a playoff run filled with multiple iconic moments — notably his unbelievable series-ending buzzer-beater against the Sixers — Leonard has yet another chance to add to his growing legacy.
“I feel like I made some big shots in my career before,” Leonard said. “I mean, obviously not like the ones now, but it’s been fun. I can’t complain about my career.
“I had a great time each step of the way. I had fun with my whole journey.”
The Raptors hope the next steps in that journey will be three more wins in this series — and, with them, an NBA championship.