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Kawhi Leonard Delivers His Message Loud and Clear

The NBA’s elusive superstar is the ultimate basketball plot twist, laying waste to the predictable order of the playoffs by leading the Raptors to a fascinating matchup against the Warriors in the Finals

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With a little under seven minutes left in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks, a play took place that seemed to symbolize not only the Raptors’ delirious, improbable victory in the game, and not only their delirious, improbable victory in the series, but also their delirious, improbable run through the 2019 playoffs. In the moment, I would have sworn it symbolized even more than that—something like hope, and the possibility of justice, and maybe life itself—but we will see about that as we go along.

The play, like the rest of the Raptors’ season, was first and foremost a message from Kawhi Leonard. The Bucks’ Khris Middleton had taken the ball inside Milwaukee’s 3-point line. To get around his defender, Toronto’s Fred VanVleet, Middleton tried to dribble behind his back, a perfectly normal move under most circumstances, but one that becomes a risky circus stunt against a defense as pitilessly well-honed as the Raptors’. Middleton bobbled the ball, just slightly, but enough to give Toronto’s Kyle Lowry an opening. Lowry snatched the ball away from Middleton and flew down the court. He was chased, and almost caught, by the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, the freakishly talented 24-year-old Greek superstar who led Milwaukee to the best record in the NBA this season and whom many people think is the league’s best player. Sensing Giannis’s fluorescent-orange shoes closing in on him, Lowry pulled up in the paint to protect the ball, then laid it off to the trailing Kawhi, who now had a clear path to the basket—clear, that is, except that Giannis, the probable league MVP, a player four inches taller and who had recently blocked the 7-foot Joel Embiid four times in one game, was standing directly in his path.

Kawhi didn’t hesitate. In one smooth motion, he scooped the ball up and leapt toward Giannis and the rim. He had already done so many unlikely things in these playoffs, including sinking the first series-clinching Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history—against the 76ers in the previous round, on a shot that bounced four times on the rim before falling through—that dunking on Giannis might have seemed like a matter of course. Toronto had trailed by 15 in the game and had come back to lead by six; Toronto had trailed by two games in the series and had come back to lead 3-2. Kawhi had been putting up Jordanesque numbers for weeks, scattering 30-point games in his wake like Gretel tossing bread crumbs in the forest. The Raptors had acquired the aura of a team for which nothing is impossible, and Leonard’s surreally great playoff performances were the major reason why.

Still, for the fraction of a second that the two stars rose toward each other in the air, it was hard to feel that Kawhi had the advantage, either in this exchange or in the flash-vision of the NBA’s future that hung on the outcome of the play. Giannis was a natural face for the league: telegenic, charismatic, at ease in his own skin, a player people loved to talk about. He had done everything the right way, embracing the city of Milwaukee after the Bucks drafted him in 2013, projecting an image fully in keeping with the NBA’s social media-era PR model—approachable but larger than life, awe-inspiring yet fun. It was easy to imagine him sliding into the kind of lovable, lucrative fame-space that Steph Curry so easily occupies and from which Kevin Durant seems determined to eject himself. A Warriors-Bucks Finals made a certain aesthetic sense: With LeBron James temporarily lost to the nihilistic chaos-rodeo he dreamed up for himself in Los Angeles, it would pit the league’s most dominant current icons with its most obvious future one.

Kawhi, by contrast, was … what’s the word? Enigmatic? There was nothing obvious about him. Where Giannis had stage presence, Kawhi had a kind of unreadable contrariness, a quality of being somewhere else even when he was standing right in front of you. From a marketing standpoint, he was a nightmare. He did his own thing without seeming to care whether it rubbed anyone, or everyone, the wrong way. He had no evident interest in crafting a narrative or explaining himself. He wasn’t provocative in a flashy, audience-focused way, as, say, Dennis Rodman was; what made him difficult was his indifference to being watched. Coming off a season-ruining injury, he’d walked out on San Antonio, an old-school franchise where stars are expected to sip Château d’Yquem with Gregg Popovich until death swallows time, and been traded to the Raptors to spend one mildly baffling season until his likely free agency this summer. Fans didn’t hate him, exactly; you have to understand someone, or think you do, to hate them, and Kawhi was too elusive to be understood. There was something about him that couldn’t be easily incorporated within the image of an elite NBA star in 2019—something that not only didn’t fit the image but that invisibly seemed to repel it, as if Kawhi and fame were magnets turned the wrong way around.

The leaning one-handed dunk that Kawhi Leonard threw down over Giannis Antetokounmpo wasn’t the prettiest or the most acrobatic dunk I have ever seen. But it had the same quality of shocking, off-kilter inevitability that many of Kawhi’s best moments share, that strange grace of retroactive fatedness: A split second before they happen, you could not imagine them happening; a split second afterward, you cannot imagine how anything else ever could have. Four bounces on the rim? Of course!

The dunk turned a six-point lead into an eight-point lead and contributed mightily to Toronto reaching its first-ever NBA Finals. It turned Twitter, and Drake’s brain, inside out. It set up a tactically fascinating Warriors-Raptors matchup that tips off Thursday night in Toronto. I’m not dwelling on it for any of those reasons, though. I’m dwelling on it because it was the moment when I first consciously recognized how utterly satisfying I find it to watch Kawhi Leonard, the ultimate basketball plot twist, laying waste to the orderly NBA. And it was the first moment when I consciously realized why.

Kawhi is a misfit, like most of us in this mad and maddening world. When life is easy—when you get the big tax refund you weren’t expecting, when your car arrives just as the rain starts, when the cool kids mysteriously want to be your friend—then maybe you can identify with Steph Curry. When your boss praises your potential, when you feel you have the respect and admiration you know in your heart you have earned, then maybe Giannis is your natural avatar. But when you feel misunderstood, you want someone like Kawhi to show you that it’s possible to win even when you’re odd and out of place. He’s the basketball star for everyone who missed out on an invitation to life’s red carpet. He’s the player for the artist who didn’t get the grant, the photographer who doesn’t get likes on Instagram, the singleton whose crushes don’t swipe right. He’s the player for the parent whose kid didn’t make honor roll and the worker who got out-talked and out-smiled for the promotion. His game is a reminder that the universe’s golden children don’t have a monopoly on brilliance—that you can be outside the circle of prestige and still be great, and maybe, eventually, be vindicated.

Do the Raptors have a chance in the Finals? It’s a long shot. But then, it’s supposed to be. If there was ever a sports team of, by, and for the universe’s golden children, it’s the Warriors, and when you are favored by definition you are likely also to be favored on the court. Kawhi will have to sustain what might be an impossible level of brilliance just to keep it close. To my mind, this is the most fascinating story the NBA has to offer this year, precisely because it seems less prepackaged and TV-sculpted than the other, more obvious stories we could have gotten in its place. Whatever happens, Kawhi has made basketball more exciting, and in a strange way more accessible, by being, inaccessibly, himself.