I’ve been watching phone-recorded videos of Toronto, roughly 2,500 miles away from where I’m sitting, in the aftermath of the single biggest moment in Raptors history. Hordes of people chanting along streets that had been flooded due to intense rainfall only hours before; people standing on the balcony of their high-rise apartments screaming to the heavens; a caravan of cars in every which direction, honking ceaselessly, turning bumper-to-bumper traffic into a life-affirming communal experience. It’s past midnight, and long past the final buzzer of the 100-94 Game 6 win in the Eastern Conference finals that officially brought the Raptors to their first NBA Finals in franchise history. In the thick of the deafening noise pollution is catharsis for a fan base wound up in several layers of little-brother syndrome (and a cocktail of other neuroses). Not only are the team and its fans being heard, but, maybe for the first time ever, they’re being reckoned with.
About 10 months ago, the Raptors organization handed Kawhi Leonard the keys to the franchise, not knowing what the future might bring, only that it’d have to be different than the stasis they’d endured over the previous half-decade. The regular season was handled with kid gloves; the first two playoff series reanimated demons that have haunted the team and its fan base for decades. Long dismissed for their gracelessness under pressure, year after year, the Raptors have shattered that mental block this time around, overcoming an 0-2 series deficit by winning four straight games against Milwaukee, the best team in the regular season. For years, Toronto was seemingly content to simply rise within the self-contained terrarium of its franchise leaderboard. It was always good enough by team standards, but never enough for the scrutinous eye of the rest of the league. But over the past two weeks, the team has experienced breakthrough after breakthrough. And now, they await a best-of-seven series, with home-court advantage, for the championship.
This season has met or exceeded just about every expectation both internally and externally, from within Canada and abroad, and while the foundations of the team remain tethered to a forgettable past, these Raptors are different. Undeniably so. There is an element of grit to them. Marc Gasol, whom the Raptors acquired in a midseason trade with the Grizzlies, told reporters after the game, “Every teammate that I had in Memphis—Tony [Allen], Zach [Randolph], and Mike [Conley Jr.] especially—they’re in here, too.” There is an element of rootability. A homesick Torontonian living in Southern California watched Game 6 from Recess, a small bar in Santa Ana, California, where, to her surprise, she told me, the entire Southern Californian crowd boisterously rallied for her home team. The Raptors identity had undergone a metamorphosis all season, but it’s in this moment that it has truly crossed borders.
What Leonard is doing in this postseason is timeless. Prior to 2019, only three players in NBA playoff history—Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, and Rolando Blackman—had averaged at least 30 points on at least 51 percent shooting from the field, 38 percent from 3, and 85 percent from the free throw line. Jordan played only three games; Miller and Blackman played four; Kawhi has played 18. His workload on both ends of the court is essentially unprecedented; the best wing scorers in postseason history almost always had defensive-minded sidekicks to take up the primary option on the opposition most nights. Leonard has had no such luxury, especially with longtime teammate Danny Green struggling mightily on offense. He has simply shouldered the burden, and moved forward.
The more we see of Kawhi operating at this all-time level, the more his entire on-court presence makes sense. Leonard loved math growing up. He reveled in geometry, a discipline that seeks the truth embedded in lines and angles, and articulates them through reasoning. What in textbooks is often a frustrating method of communicating logic becomes something closer to art when watching Leonard on the hardwood. The way he closes distances on defense and finds openings on offense without much of a first step suggests a sort of mystical precognition, but it’s really the result of Leonard’s real-time computational ability. Kawhi being able to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo better than anyone has all season wasn’t a glitch, but a function of the way Leonard sees the game. Basketball is seemingly expressed in logical terms that he can assess faster than any other player on the floor. It’s why, even when playing on one leg, he still seems ahead of the curve. And why, when everything else breaks down, Leonard always seems to meet the absurd standards he sets for himself.
“Most other sciences are in a state of constant flux,” Alice in Wonderland author (and mathematician) Lewis Carroll once wrote. “The precious truths of one generation being smiled at as paradoxes by the second generation, and contemptuously swept away as childish nonsense by the third. … But neither 30 years, nor 30 centuries, affect the clearness, or the charm, of geometric truths.”
Kawhi has been Atlas with combat boots and a pocket protector, balancing the weight of the world on the back of a protractor. The sweat equity Leonard has put into the Raptors is almost immeasurable, and if it doesn’t quite show his commitment to the team in the long run, it at least shows his commitment to every possession in front of him. His willingness and ability to assume that level of responsibility is exactly why Toronto has made it out of the East. Leonard averaged more than 41 minutes per game against the Bucks, a threshold Antetokounmpo shockingly managed to surpass only once in the regular season and once in the playoffs (in the double-overtime Game 3). Raptors coach Nick Nurse’s desperate, rotation-shortening tactics in an attempt to win every possession were compatible with Kawhi’s nearsighted perfectionism.
Of course, we’ve seen plenty of one-man shows in NBA history that have fallen way short of the promised land, but the other Raptors, for the most part, held up their end of the bargain. Kyle Lowry had a fantastic series, collapsing the Bucks defense with dribble penetration, scoring when other non-Kawhi teammates were too afraid to, and winning 50-50 balls. Fred VanVleet, who had struggled for more than three-fourths of the postseason, transformed himself into one of the NBA’s most accurate shooters in the final three games of the series, hitting 14-of-17 from 3. And Toronto got just enough out of Gasol and Pascal Siakam in each of the past four games to make up for their passivity on offense.
It will be much more difficult to maintain against the Warriors, but as long as Toronto gets just enough from the supporting cast, the Raptors will have a lifeline, not only into the Finals, but into the unknowable offseason. However, to skip that far ahead would be to leave the mindspace that Leonard has carved out for Toronto. And no one involved in the franchise, be it professionally or emotionally, is in any position not to follow Kawhi’s lead. The only thing that matters is the next possession, and then the one after that. He’d be the best therapist Raptors fans could ever ask for, if he weren’t also their biggest source of anxiety.
The next possession isn’t until Thursday, so we might as well revisit their last. Kawhi sealed Game 6 and the series, and in the process systematically dismantled the franchise’s past half-decade of mounting self-doubt, because of course he did. But did you see how he did it? The game’s final result wasn’t in question by that point, but after Siakam missed the second of his two free throw attempts with seven seconds remaining in Game 6, Leonard sought to erase all remaining doubt. And he’d do it how he’s done it all postseason long: by adding more weight on his shoulders. With the 7-foot Brook Lopez hanging from his right shoulder and the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo pressing up on his left, Leonard splayed his arms out wide, all 7-foot-3 of his tremendous wingspan, barricading both Bucks bigs from the loose rebound—his 17th of the game. The ball was his. Kawhi is the ultimate difference between the 23 years of managing inferiority complexes prior to this season, and hosting Game 1 of the NBA Finals later this week. On Saturday night, Kawhi changed the perception of a city forever. The Eastern Conference, the future of the Raptors, the claim to being the best player left standing—he seized all of it. And they will be in his possession until further notice.