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Kawhi Leonard Quarantines the Past

Toronto’s muted superstar has had a magnificent postseason, and his insistence on dominating the present might be enough to keep anxious Raptors fans from thinking about the past and future … for now

AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s been nearly 18 years since the Toronto Raptors last played in Philadelphia during the postseason; the final moment of that series, a cosmically misaligned shot attempt widely viewed as the Big Bang of the Raptors’ modern condition, will soon be old enough to vote. On May 20, 2001, down 88-87 with two seconds remaining in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the First Union Center in Philly, Raptors icon Vince Carter maneuvered his way around a screen to get open on a sideline inbound play, caught the ball at the free throw line extended on the left side, eluded a scrambling Tyrone Hill with a ball fake, and then promptly—though, perhaps too promptly—hoisted an off-balance fadeaway that stood no chance of falling.

Carter had an extra beat or two to gather himself for a cleaner attempt, but his timing had been off all day: Only a handful of hours earlier, Carter made the infamous decision to attend his college graduation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the morning before flying to Philly midday for Game 7, a decision that drew the ire of several teammates, who, to this day, blame the series loss on a lack of focus from arguably the most popular NBA superstar at the time. And thus began a series of what-ifs (and their short- and long-term consequences) that have defined the 24-year-old franchise ever since. The fan base’s paranoia, and its fraught relationship with its stars, elide at this specific origin point.

Those final two seconds of Game 7 still mean something to Toronto; they’re dissected in online retrospectives every other year, it seems. That, perhaps, is the plight of the also-ran: Without a gilded age, fans have nothing better to cling to than alternate histories. It might seem strange to dwell; the Raptors have been on a near-exponential growth pattern over the past six seasons and have made it further than those Carter-led teams ever did. But the brutally consistent beatdowns at the hands of LeBron James over the years have tainted those runs. They were pawns on a chessboard; 2001 seemed like the last time the team was truly in control of its own destiny.

On Thursday night, the Raptors will play in Philadelphia for Game 3 of their second-round series, and Toronto sports fans will observe from afar their team treading on haunted ground—or at least that’s how a mythmaker might frame the proceedings. A mythmaker can take fragments of history and reinforce its object permanence; all it takes is a through line connecting past and present that can be bent into an arc. But what chance does a mythmaker have against Kawhi Leonard, an anti-superstar whose mere presence eliminates the value of narrative entirely?

In an interview before the Raptors’ first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic, Leonard was asked whether his championship experience as a member of the San Antonio Spurs might aid in pushing the Raptors over their postseason hump. Kawhi, with his left hand pressed against his chin, looked around at nothing in particular, then pointed a blank gaze downward. “Um, what hump?” It wasn’t played as a knowing joke, as if he were aware of the Raptors’ history and understood his responsibility in reversing the fortunes of a franchise; it was unknowing, full stop.

With three words and a vacant eye, Leonard obliterated the burden of redeeming a past he was never intent on inheriting. Kawhi, Toronto’s most inscrutable appointed savior, exists outside of Raptors history in ways both reassuring and troubling. In the playoffs, where he has leveled up to a terrifying degree, his near-flawless play has provided an anxious Toronto fan base a much needed dose of selective amnesia. The Raptors have met the Buddha in the lane, and they’re feeding him the ball as often as they can. What follows is immaterial; the only thing the team can control is the now.

Kawhi seems like a logical endpoint to the Michael Jordan mythos. Watching Leonard play, it becomes clear how much a player’s style is intrinsically linked to the drama he is able to capture in his movements: Jordan’s ineffable on-court rage gave him a levitating aura; Kobe Bryant’s ballet-in-combat-boots approach to making midrange trenchwork look beautiful was a significant factor in his appeal. Leonard’s style is most closely aligned with those two figures, but he possesses no physical charisma, which creates an uncanny valley effect on the spectator. By angle, contour, and placement, his go-to fadeaways are nearly identical to those of Jordan, but it’s a strictly technical competency that renders itself closer to a Create-a-Player with 95 ratings across the board. Without a narrative to interface with, taking in Leonard’s brilliance relies on understanding the efficiency and economy of his unembellished movements within the flow of the game; it relies on the expectation of Leonard doing the right thing, which he is almost always doing.

Between the Magic and the Sixers, Leonard has matched up with the likes of Aaron Gordon, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Jonathan Isaac—the types of tall, long, and athletic defenders that have become requirements in today’s game. Simmons has fared best, being both the biggest and most laterally agile of the bunch, closing the airspace that Kawhi so patiently carves out for himself and doing a good job of challenging him on the 3-pointers the Raptors so sorely need from their primary scorer. Still, in the aggregate, Kawhi has methodically dismantled each and every one of them. The numbers have been staggering. In the playoffs Kawhi is averaging 31.3 points per game on 57.7 percent shooting from the field, 46.5 percent shooting from 3, and 89.1 percent from the free throw line. He has one of the best career postseason 3-point percentages in league history, and his playoff win shares per 48 minutes ranks behind only Jordan, George Mikan, and LeBron James all time. He is one of the best players in NBA history, uniquely equipped to evade any and all attention.

Thus, Leonard, in a way, also seems like the perfect player to close a loop that started with Carter all those years ago. Toronto glommed onto Carter’s impossibly bright star power in the early aughts, and, even after their acrimonious split, Vinsanity had set a standard of excellence at the wing position, which became a predilection for the team. DeMar DeRozan, a severely flawed but hard-working Kobe acolyte, may forever be a fan favorite, if only because he was a player, cut from a similar cloth as Carter, who loved the city as much as the city loved him. Still, for as much as DeRozan had become Toronto’s son in his nine seasons with the Raptors, he’d always seemed like a surrogate within a much larger fantasy.

Kawhi could be a step toward closure (if that’s even necessary at this point). He defuses all the fireworks that Vinsanity used to spark. He dismantles the sentimentality linked to watching a raw prospect become a multiyear All-Star by sheer force of determination. He is present, but unbeholden to just about everything other than the task at hand. It’s a terrifying thing to imagine pinning all your hopes and dreams to; especially given how likely it seems that he’ll opt to play elsewhere in a few months. But in his own way, Leonard is, indeed, imparting his experience to help the Raptors get over themselves. Back in San Antonio, Kawhi wasted no time after Tim Duncan’s retirement to override the Spurs’ offensive framework, transforming himself into the high-usage superstar few could have predicted he’d become, even in 2014 when he was named Finals MVP. He wouldn’t see through the future he’d helped conjure for the Spurs, but he, in his own way, showed the possibility of life after Duncan.

There will likely come a time when Kawhi breaks Toronto’s heart. But there is a strange comfort in his ability to melt the tensions and anxieties around the team for the time being. His presence in the present is a present. He is among a handful of players who will dictate the NBA’s competitive landscape in a couple of months, and among an even more selective minority who can single-handedly control a playoff series. But if there is one thing Kawhi does better than anyone else in the league, it’s quarantining the past.