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The Board Man Gets Paid in Full

Kawhi Leonard finally had his first transcendent performance of this NBA Finals, and the Raptors are one win away from a title because of it

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With just over a minute remaining in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, with the Raptors holding on to a comfortable lead over the Warriors, the ABC broadcast locked its cameras on the two biggest stars of the series. Stephen Curry was captured slack-jawed—his mouthguard holding on for dear life—with his shoulders slumped and head cocked back, as though he were hoping for a neck rest to hold him up from his exhaustion. Seconds later, the cameras fixed on Kawhi Leonard: upright, almost rigid in posture, solemn in a timeout huddle. Kawhi wouldn’t let up just yet; in that moment, the Raptors still hadn’t won.

Of course, they would go on to win, 105-92, to take a commanding 3-1 series lead; Toronto is now one win away from its first NBA title, and its first championship in the Big Four professional sports leagues since 1993. The faces of the Warriors told a story not only of the crumbling moment, but also of the suddenly deteriorating future. The look on Kawhi’s face, on the other hand, betrayed nothing but a sense of calm: He makes changing history look like solitary practice in the gym. In his customarily awkward postgame interview with ESPN’s Doris Burke, Leonard fumbled with the intent of his words: He doesn’t play for the records, he doesn’t play for the fans. The latter statement forced him to pause and stammer, and you could almost hear the creaking conversational gears in his mind grinding themselves to dust trying to make up for how bad that might have sounded to his legion of adoring Raptors fans back in Toronto. But with one more win, those fans will be able to rest easy.

Game 4 was Kawhi’s long-awaited Finals moment, a near-flawless display of the player he has become in his eight NBA seasons. He is a militant scorer who can attack from all levels of the floor; a shooter who can get his shot off from any distance, either off the dribble or off the ball; a defensive hawk who can create plays most players couldn’t even fathom; and maintain balance and control of possession in ways almost no one can. And yet, his most remarkable talent is being able to disappear within his own dominance. Leonard is averaging 30.8 points (on 45.2 percent shooting, 40 percent from 3, and 93.8 percent from the free throw line), 10.3 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and one block per game across four Finals games, but Friday’s contest will register as his first transcendent performance. Probably because, for the first time all series, it seemed as though Kawhi would finally have to do it all by himself; the rest of the team shot a putrid 31.3 percent from the field in the first half. He finally had the necessary backdrop to highlight his individual brilliance. Even then, his absurd third quarter, a 17-point outbreak that incinerated the Warriors’ first-half game script, was almost monotonous: a bevy of midrange pull-ups, and two opportune 3-pointers.

The third quarter has been the definitive frame for much of the series: The Warriors’ Game 2 death blow came in the third; the Raptors’ past two victories stemmed from their third-quarter dominance. For the second straight game, the Raptors scored at least 35 points in the third quarter, making in-game adjustments to make life as tough as possible for Curry, and daring his fragile supporting cast to step up. This is no coincidence. The Warriors and Raptors were the two best third-quarter teams in the league this season, with the Warriors outscoring opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions in the frame and the Raptors outscoring them by 9.9. A blitzkrieg coming out of halftime suggests a number of things: a strong coaching staff and a focused roster, working in tandem to process the flow of the game’s first 24 minutes and adjust accordingly.

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse once again switched Danny Green out of the starting lineup in the second half in favor of Fred VanVleet, who has been a Curry menace all series long. The team bumped and bodied Curry out on the perimeter, blitzing him to get the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible. When Klay Thompson was off the floor, the Raptors went back to their stunty box-and-one defense, which forced nonshooters to step up; they didn’t. Curry was a second shy of 43 minutes played in the game; he was visibly exhausted from all the defensive attention thrown at him. Leonard, who leads all players in postseason minutes played, looked indefatigable. When I asked Nurse about the team’s brute efficiency in the third frame back in January, he could only laugh. “It’s definitely the magic words of the coaching staff,” he told me then. “We’ve done a really good job of taking to those adjustments, and probably more than anything, we’ve done a really good job of focusing our energy. We come out of the locker room with the proper pace, both mentally and physically.”

That begins and ends with Leonard, who offers the Raptors all the advantages that Kevin Durant would have given the Warriors in this series. When either team is at its best, Leonard or Durant can seem more like ambient forces for good: Durant will always be overshadowed by the exuberance of Curry; Leonard dulls his own blade. Both are almost inhumanly efficient in almost every play type there is in the game of basketball, which creates different avenues of success for teammates. But only one is actually playing in the Finals. Only one has been able to assume the role of stabilizer at the highest level. With players hobbling left and right on both sides of the divide, the best course of action is the simplest one. And Kawhi Leonard is the NBA’s Occam’s razor.