OAKLAND — He arrived in Toronto full of mystery and over the course of his nine months hasn’t worried about dispelling any of it.
Will he stay? Will he go? Does he like it in Toronto?
No one knows.
But none of it matters. Not now.
Kawhi Leonard spoke loudest every time he took the floor, which was more often than anyone else in the war of attrition otherwise known as the NBA playoffs, a winner-take-all tournament he led in points, rebounds and — most significantly — minutes played.
In the end, load management was Leonard hoisting a nation’s weighty dreams on his broad back and never missing a step.
In doing so, he led the Toronto Raptors to an NBA championship that over their history looked at times as unlikely as sending humans to Mars without supplemental oxygen.
No matter what happens next, Leonard is a Raptor forever, and so much of the team’s past is now irrelevant.
Remember 16-66? Remember Andrea Bargnani?
Remember Kobe’s 81?
Footnotes now, all of them, thanks to Leonard and a team that followed his example: play hard, play steady. And even if you buckle, don’t waver.
So how perfect was it that when it was time to climb the top of the mountain, to plant the flag at first light, he had so much help?
One man, no matter how special, can’t win an NBA title. It’s too hard. The Warriors know that, as they saw their stars fall one-by-one. First Kevin Durant in Game 5 with a torn Achilles and then Klay Thompson late in the third quarter of Game 6, with what turned out to be a torn ACL.
So you had Fred VanVleet sprinting around after Steph Curry and somehow still having legs to score 12 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, including the go-ahead triple with 3:44 to play?
Or Kyle Lowry taking command of the most important game of his career? Or Pascal Siakam rebounding after a rare poor outing in Game 5, in which Raptors head coach Nick Nurse benched him down the stretch for poor defence?
It was his runner with 26.5 seconds left — beating all-NBA defender Draymond Green — that helped the Raptors survive a determined Warriors rally from down six with 1:55 to play and an open look from Curry from three that could have put Golden State back in front with seconds left.
There were many hands on Toronto’s 114-110 Game 6 win that gave them their first-ever NBA championship, in the game that finally put them over the top, but it was the Klaw who did the heaviest lifting.
His Game 6 line — 22 points, six rebounds three assists and two steals — was ordinary for him, but his season in Toronto was anything but.
He helped the Raptors and their fans feel the weight of history give way to the weightlessness of pure ecstasy.
Without him, Toronto doesn’t get here. The streets aren’t filled. There aren’t millions gathered around televisions across the country and thousands in the streets.
“[I said] when I was [in Toronto] on my opening-day meeting that I was focused on the now, and I wanted to make history here and that’s all I did,” said Leonard after joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James as the only players to win Finals MVP with two different teams, adding to the one he earned in San Antonio in 2014. “I just, I’m still playing basketball no matter what jersey I have on. And the guys here have been making runs in the playoffs before I came, so I know they were a talented team.
“And I just came in with the right mindset — let’s go out and win ball games. I texted Kyle probably a day later — or the day that I got traded and told him, I said, ‘Let’s go out and do something special.’ I know your best friend left, I know you’re mad, but let’s make this thing work out. And we are here today.”
What’s Leonard like?
Well, he said he was a fun guy on Day 1, and he invited the Raptors, their fans and half the nation to a party that was otherwise unexpected and will last in the memories of those who were part of it for decades.
Fun guy. Fun times. The most fun.
He looked like he was having fun as the horn sounded and he walked around the floor at Oracle Arena with his arms raised, roaring at the ceiling.
But no one is likely to enjoy it more than Lowry, the longest-serving Raptor, the survivor, the one who had playoff doubts haunt him and will now have a ring to end every argument, not that there will be any anymore.
Lowry put his stamp on the game in the opening minutes — 11 points in the first 132 seconds, 21 at the half on his way to 26 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. He was heard.
“Words can’t explain how I feel. It’s been a long, long time. Thirteen years of NBA basketball. Couple years of college. A couple years of high school basketball,” said Lowry. “And to be able to say I’m a world champion, it makes me feel great. And to do it with the group of guys that we did it with is amazing, like it’s just kind of still surreal. Kind of, it hasn’t hit me yet. I’m still kind of in this moment of just like, ‘Is this real yet?’
“And for me just at the end of the day, I work extremely hard on my game, I work extremely hard on myself, and I am extremely hard on myself. And I’m happy to be able to say I’m a champion and it’s been a long time coming.”
The game was a grind from start to finish. The Warriors made it that way, failing to falter even after Thompson — with 30 points in his pocket — had to leave the game late in the third quarter after injuring his knee when fouled on a dunk attempt.
But the Raptors were up to the task. It suited them.
If Leonard led them, Lowry was their ultimate symbol.
It’s a team that is a delightful collection of accidents. Even Masai Ujiri, team president and mastermind, was an unpaid scout sleeping on buddies’ hotel room floors barely more than a decade ago. No silver spoons here.
Never has a championship been won by a team without a player taken in the draft lottery, without exception, the lifeblood of every great team you can name.
Leonard was taken No. 15 overall in 2011 by the Indiana Pacers, who thought so much of him they traded him on draft night for George Hill. Marc Gasol was a second-round pick, the fat, underachieving sibling to his older brother Pau. Pascal Siakam was supposed to be an “energy guy” — NBA parlance for someone who wasn’t talented enough to start or play a prime role.
Siakam, in his third season, is a future all-star who counted 26 points, 10 rebounds and three assists in the deciding game of the NBA Finals. A non-shooter out college, he was 3-of-6 from three.
If someone thought Lowry was going to be a five-time all-star and leading a team to a title in his 13th NBA season, he wouldn’t have been taken 21st overall. If Ujiri felt he could have won a title with him, he wouldn’t have tried to trade him the New York Knicks six years ago. And on and on.
“[Our team] is not the glam stars,” said VanVleet. “None of our guys probably, other than Kawhi, are in that big boy club or the fan boy club of the NBA. We got guys who had to get it the long way, who had to get it out of the mud, who had to get it against the grain. And we got a team full of them coming from all different places, all walks of life, all different life stories to get to this moment. But we got some talent, we got some talent for sure.
“And at the end of the day, going out there in the playoffs is about performing at a high level and we were able to do that over the course of two months.”
Predictably, the Warriors didn’t go quietly. They had too much on the line, too much to prove.
Chasing their fourth title in five years, Golden State at times seemed to be missing their purpose, needing a cause.
It’s a cliche to say the energy in a building is “electric,” but one would welcome better adjectives. As Game 6 got ready to tip off, there was a charge coursing through the air, sparked by the moment, the game, the stakes and that this was — one way or the other — the end of an era at Oracle Arena. It is the NBA’s oldest building and will stand empty after the Warriors move to San Francisco next season, only a few miles away but worlds apart from Oakland’s gritty charms.
Would this be the end of the Warriors’ dynasty too? Was Kevin Durant’s injury the death knell or the rallying point? There was something in the air and you could feel it. And when it was over, it hit hard.
“Tough way to go out. Obviously, credit Toronto on a great series. They went out and won it. They played amazing tonight all across the board,” said Curry, who had 21 points on 6-of-17 shooting. “It’s a tough feeling being on this side of losing in the Finals. But I think a lot has been proven about who we are as a team and the fight that we have and all the adversity that we dealt with in this entire playoff run. It’s a one-possession game to keep our season alive tonight. So we’ll be thinking about this one. It’s tough.”
Well before the ball went up, the fans had come in from their tailgates and the building was full, every patron — except for the sizeable Raptors contingent — was draped in yellow and on their feet. “Warriors” is the chant here and it’s haunting, a little bit threatening and it was in full volume.
But rather than be cowed or intimidated, the Raptors came out like the voltage was flowing through their bodies. Lowry, for certain, was amped, seeking a championship few would have predicted for him. He scored a layup on his first touch and then knocked down not one, not two, but three triples in the game’s first 2:12. The Raptors led 11-2. Then Siakam knocked down a pair of threes and finished a fastbreak with a dunk.
“I wanted to be aggressive,” said Lowry. “I look back at every game we’ve played and that we’ve won I’ve shot double figure times. And I was more aggressive. The games, I think besides Game 1, but other games, all the other games we won, I was more aggressive offensively, makes or misses.”
The Raptors won the first quarter 33-32, but there were four lead changes in the final two minutes of the quarter alone. The tone was set. By the time the half rolled around, Toronto led 60-57 and Lowry had 21 points, but there had been 14 lead changes and four ties. The second half was equally taut, equally tense. The Warriors wouldn’t go away.
But the Raptors got just enough down the stretch. They got something from nearly everyone. They survived. It’s how championships are won, most of the time.
And they had Leonard, who was limited to nine games a season ago, doubted for his commitment, and who was on a mission. Being on the floor when the horn sounded and he was a champion again wasn’t something he took for granted.
“It meant a lot. Like I said, last summer was tough. I was still rehabbing and just trusted the process, really, with myself. I told myself I would be back. I wasn’t going to come back until I could be the player I am today,” said Leonard. “…Just being able to win this championship this year is just something special for me because you know how the last year everybody was looking at me, and I stayed true to myself, and I had a great support system. And once I got here to Toronto they understood everything and kept moving from there.”
Where does it all go from here? Leonard’s future is uncertain and there was a report Friday night that Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis was going to offer Ujiri $10 million a year and an ownership stake to help him turn his organization around, although MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum said: “I know Masai. He’s, he’s like my son. There is no chance he’s leaving Toronto.”
But the moment is all that matters for now. How to put it into context is, at best, a guess. Only time will provide the answer. It’s, in the end, just sports, just a game. Just a band of the best and most gifted from around the world wearing a jersey with your city on it, playing in your country. They do it for money. Lots of it.
But when millions of people are swept up in something, it has to mean something more, doesn’t it? Even if we’re not exactly sure what. What else can so many people agree on so wholeheartedly these days, so passionately?
That has to matter if only as proof that it can happen.
That it was basketball that made it happen? Who saw that coming?
My mom and dad are in their 80s. They came to Canada on a boat. It was a different place then. They’ve never laid their hands on a basketball. The vocabulary of the game eludes them. They were watching. Their octogenarian friends were watching.
The wee ones on their way to school at the end of my street have been wearing Raptors gear like a uniform for weeks now. The crowds at all the Jurassic Parks that have sprung up across Canada are a snapshot of a country that is ever evolving, that’s international in its composition, in its outlook.
It’s a mistake to define a moment like this through the lens of hockey — and I’m not — but it’s a handy touchstone. For decades we relied on hockey as our way to share something about ourselves. It was a gathering place for Canadians old and new, mainly because there were so few other places to meet. It was what we brought to the global potluck, something unique and identifiable. Something comfortable.
But borders aren’t what they used to be, to the extent they exist at all. So now maybe basketball is a way for Canada to invite themselves to a bigger table, a larger conversation where more people can be included on their terms. Where we feel connected to something bigger, more complicated, richer and more uncertain, not unlike the way Canada meets the world.
Leonard made all of this happen.
The Raptors’ win means one thing to the players and the organization and the fans. There will be a parade Monday. The celebration should roll on and on.
For Leonard, it was proof to himself and the world that when healthy he is the best player on the planet.
And with the Larry O’Brien Trophy in his grasp, and a second Finals MVP to his name, we got to see the fun guy come out. All smiles. Dancing in the Raptors locker-room, wearing ski goggles, soaked in champagne.
There is no mystery to Leonard: He’s a champion.
But for the franchise, the win represents something else: the summit. A glorious endpoint after 24 years of twists and turns and doubts and heartbreaks.
And for all those that feel like the Raptors and basketball are a means of expression? That these past weeks have been their chance to have their voice heard and a way to join a conversation that resonated far and wide?
It doesn’t feel like the end of anything. It feels like the beginning.