Kawhi Leonard is widely regarded as an NBA superstar. With that said, superstars must be challenged to confirm their merits, and Game 6 of the NBA Finals is going to be the biggest 48 minutes of Leonard’s career.
The 2018-19 NBA season has brought out the best version of Leonard the league has ever seen. After a puzzling final season with the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard has debunked any doubts surrounding his game with the Toronto Raptors.
Leonard is a tenacious two-way player. He’s an alpha-dog scorer, an elite defender, hits the boards at a high level, and a savvy passer. Leonard averaged career highs in points (26.6) and rebounds (7.3) this season en route to helping the Raptors claim the two seed in the Eastern Conference.
In the playoffs, Kawhi Leonard has taken it to another level.
In the 23 playoff games the Raptors have competed in, Leonard has averaged 30.9 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. He has dominated games, thrived on both ends of the floor, and taken the big shot. Leonard doing so was highlighted by him hitting a buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to eliminate the Philadelphia 76ers.
The postseason has only enhanced Leonard’s image. He helped the Raptors beat the Orlando Magic in five games in the first round, overcome a back-and-forth matchup with the 76ers, and brought them back to win the Eastern Conference Finals after trailing 2-0 to the Milwaukee Bucks — when it, at times, looked like he was playing with an injured leg.
The Raptors have the upper hand in the NBA Finals, as they lead the Golden State Warriors, 3-2. The two teams split Games 1 and 2 in Toronto, followed by the Raptors winning Games 3 and 4 in Oakland, and the Warriors staying alive with a Game 5 victory in Toronto. But it has been a bizarre series, to say the least.
For starters, Kevin Durant missed the first four games of the series due to injury, and Klay Thompson was sidelined in Game 3 for said reason. Durant gave it a go in Game 5 to give the Warriors a boost, and while he helped them get out to an early lead, he suffered a ruptured Achilles in the second quarter.
Late in the fourth quarter, Leonard scored 10 straight points to put the Raptors up six. Then Raptors head coach Nick Nurse called a timeout, and the Warriors mounted a comeback to ultimately win the game after the break in the action. Now the scene shifts back to Oracle Arena with a plethora of storylines. But the Raptors, without a doubt, missed a golden opportunity to end this series, and Leonard deserves a fair share of the blame.
He struggled to score throughout the majority of the game, and the Raptors, as a whole, didn’t take advantage of Durant’s absence, or their late run to take the lead.
Yes, the Raptors have two more chances to win the series, but the last thing you want to do is wake-up a hibernating bear. They lost two games in a row on their home floor to make the series 3-1 in the Raptors’ favor and looked dead in the water, except the Raptors couldn’t finish them off. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson hit some clutch jump shots, the Warriors got the stops they had to defensively, and they stole Game 5.
Game 6 is in Oracle Arena, which is one of the hardest places in the NBA for an opposing team to win. The crowd is loud, and the Warriors feed off their energy. The Raptors need Kawhi Leonard to eliminate their presence and, bigger than that, play like the star president Masai Ujiri went all in on last summer.
Leonard has to command the ball, play aggressive from tip-off to the closing buzzer, and put the Raptors on his back. If the Raptors lose, they’re in trouble. The Warriors are a poised group, unfazed by competition, and never out of games. They’ve shown they can come back to win a playoff series. If you give them confidence, they’ll walk all over you.
The Raptors must avoid giving the Warriors an ounce of momentum, and they have the veterans and talent to do as such with the likes of Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Danny Green, among others, on standby. To quote Robert California: “The fallacy is that it is up to the steamroller. It is up to the object, whether it will be flattened or not.”
Can we say with total conviction that Leonard can end a dynasty? Can he lead the Raptors into hostile territory and win in what is going to be a high-energy game against the defending NBA champions? Many think he’s capable of doing as such, but we haven’t actually seen it.
Could the Raptors win a Game 7 after losing two demoralizing games in a row? Even with Durant sidelined, Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and DeMarcus Cousins, among others, form a championship contender and one could argue are just as good, if not better than the Raptors.
There’s also the element of Leonard’s upcoming free agency. Does he want his Raptors’ tenure to end by dropping three consecutive games to lose the NBA Finals — with two of them being at home — and then bolting in free agency? Regardless of whether he has made up his mind on where he’ll play next season, losing this series would be a permanent stain on a great season.
Sure, Leonard won a championship and the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award with the Spurs in 2014. But the headlines and focus of that Spurs team was the big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, not Leonard. For example, when you look back on the 2015 NBA Finals, do you think about Iguodala, who won the series MVP, or Curry and Thompson? It’s not to undermine Iguodala’s efforts in the series, but Finals MVPs aren’t glorified in the proceeding years.
Leonard overcame a pivotal missed free throw in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals by helping the Spurs win an NBA championship the ensuing year; he put together a remarkable season after playing in just nine games the campaign prior; he has put together a captivating postseason. Those events are all impressive, but none of them will define Leonard’s career. He needs a closeout game with his claw marks all over it.
Ending the Warriors reign on the road would be marveled for eternity. Losing will bring on doubt as to how great Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors truly are.