With Canada on edge, Raptors know dangers of looking too far ahead

Kawhi Leonard spoke to media on how Raptors fans have helped the team go on this historic run.

TORONTO – He doesn’t need your self-help books or inspirational quotes.

He’s not in search of a mantra. He doesn’t need to be reminded about the power of a clear and present mind.

He lives it every day, even on days like this, the biggest days you can have in a basketball life.

Kawhi Leonard may be able to stay in the moment better than your average person, better than your average NBA player. But that’s not because the past isn’t always present, a handy reminder of how quickly things can change, paths can get diverted or history can be rewritten.

How no matter how certain things seem, they can pivot on a dime.

All of Raptors nation is gathering, hoping, and planning in advance of Monday night. Game 5 at Scotiabank Arena against the Golden State Warriors with the Raptors leading 3-1 is less a basketball game than a communal campfire, a prelude to a summer of celebration.

All they can do is look forward and watch their dreams play out in an endless loop in their mind’s eye.

If it’s possible to die from anticipation, we might find out.

But in the eye of the storm, closest to the fire, Kawhi Leonard knows that looking ahead does no good, only harm.

All he has to do is look back.

Stream all Sportsnet games of the NBA Finals as the Toronto Raptors take on the Golden State Warriors for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Plus, get the Stanley Cup Final, MLB, IndyCar and more.

A year ago he wasn’t on the verge of playing for an NBA championship. He wasn’t answering questions about what a title would mean for basketball in Canada ("I’m not really sure") or about rumours about buying property in Toronto ("No, it didn’t. It didn’t happen yet, no.").

Last June he was injured, coming off a nine-game season and wasn’t completely sure he’d ever have an opportunity like this again.

"The year I had last year and then just being able to play in the Finals this year has been great. But I’ve been happy just being able to return to basketball [since] the beginning of the regular season," said Leonard on Sunday.

The experience has allowed him to further calm an already quiet mind. His mental discipline has been enhanced by additional perspective of how fragile it all really is.

"So just enjoy it. It’s why you’re here," he said. "That’s what my mindset really comes from and what made me grow as a player, because those are the worst times in basketball. It’s not losing games or missing shots; it’s about you being able to play or not [be] on the floor. I grew up my whole life wanting to play in the NBA. And when that’s taken away, it’s terrible."

Almost losing what matters most to him means that Leonard can step on the floor in front of the world with an air of calm and the peace of mind to make the electric routine; to make something momentous feel like Wednesday.

It’s the athlete way — focus on the details so the biggest moments seem small. Some do it better than others. Leonard might be among the very best.

"I think your team’s temperament flows through your best players," Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of Leonard earlier in the playoffs. "He’s as even-keeled maybe as I’ve ever seen. So, that spreads pretty quickly around the locker room. And on top of that, he makes a lot of big plays. The even-keeled guy is out there making big plays, and the rest of the guys usually get settled in fairly quickly."

As the season and the Finals build to a crescendo the noise is getting louder. Harder to keep at bay.

Fans started lining up at Jurassic Park on Saturday. Every interaction the Raptors had on Sunday was a reminder of the opportunity they have in front of them — three chances to win one game against the Warriors and bring the NBA Championship to Canada for the first time.

The unspoken corollary: don’t blow it.

And so as the enormity of the moment approaches, the skill required urgently — perhaps more than anything physical — is the ability to keep the biggest moment of your professional life relatively mundane.

It’s like pretending Christmas morning is a Monday, and the garbage needs to go out and the dishwasher emptied before you can peek in a stocking.

"It [has] definitely improved through the years as a pro," said Kyle Lowry, a 13-year veteran who was noticeably prone to ups and downs in public countenance in previous Raptors playoff runs but who hasn’t varied his message, win or lose, this year at all. "Every day isn’t given to you. You wake up every day, you just should be happy you wake up every day. People ask me how I’m doing and I say, ‘I’m great; I’m alive.’ That’s kind of the staying-in-the-moment thing that I’ve always lived by."

Lowry’s trick is to remember that pressure is what his mom faced raising him and his brother as a single mother in North Philadelphia, not anything he’ll face on a basketball court.

"That’s pressure to me. Just being willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that your kid will see better than what you’ve ever seen," said Lowry. "Getting up and taking public transportation an hour and a half away [to work]. People like that are heroes to me — just going to work and grinding and doing whatever it takes to provide for your family and protect who you have to protect."

But playing in the NBA, playing for titles, is not exactly stress-free and Lowry will acknowledge it’s been easier to not get too high with the highs or low with the lows this season with Leonard around, along with fellow veterans Marc Gasol and Danny Green.

"I think we just have a bunch of guys that are in the moment, understanding that we’re just going to keep playing and keep working," said Lowry, who gave a hint at how much this opportunity means to him when he ran to his two boys, Karter and Kameron, in the moments after the horn when the Raptors eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks to qualify for the NBA Finals.

"Kind of just been like this all year, to be honest."

But it’s Leonard who has made a study of keeping distractions at bay. He has no social media presence, seemingly no need for external validation and a penchant or ability to interpret the world in a literal, black-and-white manner, at least publicly. It has spawned a cottage industry of GIFs and video clips with answers such as his "I don’t know, I haven’t done it" when asked — metaphorically — how to beat the Bucks four times in a row in a post-game interview following the Toronto’s Game 5 win over Milwaukee.

It’s not that Leonard doesn’t look ahead at times. But he knows not to get so distracted by the future that you trip on the present, as he related during his introductory Raptors press conference.

"[I] just stay in the same routine and just focus what’s in front of me," he said Sunday. "Obviously, as you said, human beings, we do think in the future. Been thinking in the future since the beginning of the season, just trying to get to this point. [But] you just got to stay current and stay in your routine, be patient and not rush anything."

Like his ball-handling and his shooting — skills that Leonard developed into elite weapons after coming into the NBA as a No. 15 pick touted for his defensive skills — his ability to stay in the moment has been the product of deliberate practice.

"Just growing up playing basketball… just learning from past experience, past games that I lost, games that I won," said Leonard. "Seeing what I felt like or what I was thinking at those specific times and just bringing it back to current-day reality, the moment that I’m in. Making sure I can use the things that were good and delete the things that were bad to help me be more successful.

"I’m still trying to get better every day with it. Either with basketball or off the floor. It’s an everyday battle."

On Monday Leonard’s ability to make big moments small will be put to the ultimate test. It has been five years since he won a championship with the Spurs, being named Finals MVP in the process. Getting a chance to do it again was not guaranteed. A year ago it didn’t seem possible. Now he’s got a nation inspired, gathered, fingers crossed, waiting to explode with 24 years of pent-up joy.

In Leonard they have just the man to turn that valve and get them over the hump. But he’s an example too: He didn’t know he’d be here a year ago and so is enjoying the moment all the more.

In that sense he feels he has already won, and on this day of days, what Raptors fan couldn’t learn a little from that?

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.