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NBA Finals Review 15.06.2019

The King is dead, Long Live The King! It could be read two ways after this year’s NBA Finals. First, it seems Golden State dynasty dominance over the league is over, or severely jeopardized at least. Second, Kahwi Leonard is now rightfully regarded as the best basketball player in the world, better and more valuable than Steph Curry and LeBron James, after he was the main reason behind the first Toronto Raptors’ NBA championship.

Only a few weeks ago, Toronto were down 2–1 to the Sixers in East second round. Game 3 defeat was a bad one, Sixers by 21 points, and Raptors seemed doomed for another early play-off exit, as usual in the last couple of years. All NBA media and pundits prepared their pens to start writing analysis on Leonard’s free agency and prospects back at that point. Kahwi himself had something else on mind though. He led Toronto to an emphatic Game 4 win, 101–96, and the Canadians regained control of the series. Of course, no player can win the title in NBA alone (even if his name is Michael Jordan). Kyle Lowry had been doubted and mocked by many sceptics through the course of the regular season and the early play-off rounds. The veteran point-guard had been 2 of 10 for only 7 points in Game 3, but he bounced back with 14 points and seven assists in Game 4. Mid-season addition Marc Gasol chipped in with 16 points. Leonard did all the rest. He had 39 points on 13-of-20 shooting, along with 14 rebounds and five assists.

It was only the beginning though. Leonard hit a mind-boggling game and series winner over a few Boston defenders. Then he led his team to a shocking run of 4 consecutive wins over Milwaukee Bucks to erase the early Raptors’ 0-2 deficit in the East Final. And of course, the Finals at last. Not many people believed in Toronto’s chances against the Warriors, even with Durant completely missing the series probability at that stage.

Now the Raptors are champions, with the first trip to the Finals in the franchise’ history. There will always be two sides of the story in these Finals. Golden State was without Kevin Durant for all but 12 minutes of the series, and Klay Thompson went down in Game 6 as well. After all the Raptors seized their opportunity and never let go. Even as the Warriors fought back and played like champions themselves, Toronto had answers in every clutch moment. Most of the times they came from Leonard, other times it was key reserve VanVleet killing it with 3-pointers to stab Golden State's momentum. It was Kyle Lowry in Game 6 with 26 points on 9 of 16 shooting and 10 assists, and Siakam, who added 26 points and 10 rebounds of his own, to help Leonard in dethroning the Warriors in 6 games. The night after the win ended with Leonard on the podium accepting his Finals MVP award.

 

Credit where it is due though, goes to the organization front office. Twelve months ago, president Masai Ujiri made an extremely bold decision. He traded his best player, the cornerstone of the team in the last seasons, DeMar DeRozan, after three straight 50-win seasons. He also fired his head coach, Dwane Casey, just a month before Casey was named Coach of the Year. The Raptors then rested Leonard on plan, for more than 20 regular season games, and still finished second in the East (and in the whole league), only 2 wins behind Milwaukee Bucks. It’s clearly visible how wise a decision that was, having a fresh Kahwi for the entire play-off run.

During the Finals, Leonard averaged 28.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists. Rarely we have seen more convincing numbers for an anonymous MVP choice through the history of the league. Steph Curry called him “amazing.” Andre Iguodala called him a “machine.” Once before Draymond Green had said that Leonard doesn’t look like LeBron or Durant, but now he was forced to change his mind a bit: “He still a different type of player than LeBron and Durant. But he’s getting it done. Give him his credit. He imposed his will and all the other guys followed.”

His long-term teammate from San Antonio and now Toronto, Danny Green gives us an insight into the secret of Kahwi’s focus and professional attitude towards the game: "He’s not having social media. Totally tuning out. Avoiding [reporters] as much as possible in the summertime. He's mastered it." All that matters to his teammates and the front office now is that Leonard seems happy behind the scene.  "It took some time,” Green said early in the playoffs. “But he’s enjoying the moment. He’s feeling comfortable. He’s feeling like this is his team.”

And here comes the one-million-dollar question. Will Kahwi Leonard change his long-time expressed desire to play in his home town of Los Angeles (for Clippers most likely) and decide to stay in Canada for a new contract and a possible dynasty roster with young and upcoming Siakam and VanVleet? All Toronto’s fans and probably the majority of the unbiased NBA fans surely have great hopes that Kahwi will stay a Raptor, thus continuing to bring the suspense and intrigue of this year’s play-offs for many more seasons to come. It’s too early to say, albeit Leonard can surprise everyone once again and follow his old Spurs mentor Tim Duncan in fast and quiet new contract signing with the team that risked almost everything to bring his north of the border. Is it ‘’his’’ team?

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