Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors are one win away from taking the 2019 NBA Finals from the Golden State Warriors. They have three chances to get that one victory against a team that has won three of the past four championships.
Kawhi has a shot to beat an opponent that was previously seen as invincible. Remarkably, he’s been in this spot before.
Rewind to 2014. Kawhi was 22 and up against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a Miami Heat team that had just beaten the San Antonio Spurs in 2013 for a second consecutive title.
In that series, Leonard averaged 9.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists in the first two games. The Heat and Spurs split those bouts in San Antonio. Then, Kawhi became the Kingslayer who would take down the vaunted Heatles.
The Spurs won three straight, took the title and all but sent LeBron back to the Cleveland Cavaliers. An era that began with LeBron’s forecast of “not one, not two, not three” championships ended four seasons after it started.
In the three games that ended Miami’s reign, Kawhi averaged 23.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.0 blocks. He shot 68.6 percent from the field and 53.8 percent from three.
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
“He’s a great learner, and he’s super competitive, has a drive to be the best that’s really uncommon in our league,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after Leonard won Finals MVP in 2014, per ESPN. ” … So I just talked to him about not being in that defer sort of stage. The hell with Tony [Parker], the hell with Timmy [Duncan], the hell with Manu [Ginobili], you play the game. You are the man.”
On a team that featured three future Hall of Famers who’d already won multiple titles, a 22-year-old Kawhi was his team’s best player.
Over the next four seasons, Leonard made two All-Star teams, won two Defensive Player of the Year awards, averaged 21.1 points and somehow saw things deteriorate between himself and the Spurs. The furthest San Antonio got in that stretch was the 2017 Western Conference Finals, when Golden State’s Zaza Pachulia infamously ran under Kawhi’s feet on a jumper.
The next season, he appeared in just nine games as rumors popped up that his camp wanted him to play in a bigger market. Toronto wasn’t on his list.
But in The North, Kawhi reminded everyone of what they learned in such dramatic fashion in 2014. He’s a dominant postseason player who isn’t fazed by a dynastic team. Over his next three games, he has a chance to finish off an unprecedented task.
In 1989, Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons took down the back-to-back reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers. Fifteen years later, the Pistons broke up another Lakers run. This one was led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and Thomas had been retired for a decade. In 2011, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks shocked the Lakers, who’d just won back-to-back titles.
That gets us back to 2014 when Kawhi ended the Heatles. Now, he has a chance to break up another superteam.
Good luck finding an NBA player who’s done that to more than one team.
Of course, none of this would be possible if Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri didn’t trade for Leonard and surround him with such a deep, talented supporting cast. But O’Neal, Kevin Durant, James, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson are the only players who put up a better average game score in a Finals than the one Leonard is posting.
Ezra Shaw/Associated Press
ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe summed up Kawhi’s play:
“The Raptors are here for lots of reasons, but mostly because of Kawhi Leonard, who has asserted his claim as the world’s best player over the past month. Leonard did something that only LeBron James had approximated before him, and LeBron had help from another all-world scorer in Kyrie Irving, who poured in 90 combined points over the last three games of the 2016 Finals — when the Cleveland Cavaliers completed the unprecedented comeback Golden State will attempt now.
“Leonard broke the Warriors.“
If the Raptors can get one more win, the NBA’s kingslayer will get his second Finals MVP. He’d be the 12th player in history to win the honor more than once. LeBron and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the only ones who’ve done it for more than one team. Hakeem Olajuwon is the only player with two Finals MVPs and two Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Leonard is on the verge of cementing his status as one of the best playoff performers in NBA history.
But the numbers only supplement the feat.
Isiah and Dirk only got the Lakers. Pop only got the Heat. Jaime Lannister only got the Mad King. Kawhi has a chance to top them all.