Kawhi Leonard carrying hopes of a franchise, dreams of a city on his back

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard hoists the trophy after the Raptors won the Eastern Conference Final against the Milwaukee Bucks. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO — It’s Kawhi’s team. Maybe even his city. We just live here.

For 24 years the Toronto Raptors have been trying to find their way, break through. Be a factor. Get noticed.

One season has changed all of that. One night has changed everything.

The Raptors are going to the NBA Finals. They will play the Golden State Warriors, the two-time defending champions, the best team of this and quite possibly any generation.

For years Kyle Lowry, the Raptors’ longest-serving player, has helped the team to remarkable regular seasons that ended in varying degrees of playoff disappointment.

On Saturday night Lowry’s kids were wrestling around on the floor at Scotiabank Arena littered with confetti.

The Finals start on Thursday in Toronto. The basketball world will be coming here and staying the weekend. The Raptors are hosting the party.

Leonard brought them here because the enigmatic superstar came North via trade and has given it everything. The only load Leonard is managing now are the dreams of a city, the hopes of a franchise, the imagination of a nation.

It seem like he’s up to it.

“He’s been unbelievable,” said Raptors president Masai Ujiri during the trophy presentation. “He’s the best player in the league and we’re happy he’s in Toronto.”

For how long — Leonard, you may have heard, is a free agent this summer — doesn’t really matter. Not now. He’s here and he’s delivered.

The signature moment in Toronto’s Eastern Conference Finals-clinching 100-94 win over the Milwaukee Bucks came with 6:46 remaining in the fourth quarter after Lowry had forced a steal on Bucks’ Khris Middleton and went racing down the floor for a fast break, only to be reeled in by the long legs of Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Lowry hit the brakes at the foul line as Antetokounmpo flew on by before dropping a pass to a streaking Leonard who rose up high, ball gripped in his outstretched left claw, and brought the house down on Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, announcing to the NBA — hell, the world — that, yeah, this is really happening.

“It was a momentum kind of capper,” said Lowry. “We kind of were on a run, and why not feed the big dog? Let the big dog eat. I’m always going to look for the guy that I know can finish with the best of them. That’s what he did. He finished with the best of them right there.”

The dunk — just one more signature play by Leonard in a post-season run that has too many to count on one, normal-sized hand — gave the Raptors an 87-79 lead and turned the volume at Scotiabank Arena up to nearly unprecedented levels. It capped a 26-3 run that began with 2:19 left in the third quarter and reversed what had been a 15-point lead. It changed the game and helped clinch the series. It was history in a hand-off, leading to take-off. Where the Raptors land from here is anyone’s guess.

Said Leonard, with as much emotion as the NBA’s leading stoic could muster: “Like Kyle said, we were on a run, and the building exploded after that dunk. Kind of got us a little bit more adrenaline to get another stop. I’ve been playing with him for a while now, and it’s just chemistry right there.

“I know just to keep running with Kyle. If he doesn’t have nothing easy, he’s going to make the right play”

Leonard has come to define the Raptors on the court. He finished with 27 points, a playoff career-high 18 rebounds and seven assists. The Raptors fought back as Leonard scored or assisted on every basket on the a 10-0 run the Raptors closed the third quarter with.

In the final moments of the fourth quarter — the Bucks having pulled back within a point with a 7-0 run of their own — Leonard chipped in five more and assisted on a crucial three by Marc Gasol.

He iced the game at the free-throw line, setting of an explosion of sound, punctuated by “MVP” chants.

It was the most ordinary play of a post-season run that has run out ‘where were you when’ moments as if on an assembly line.

Who does this kind of thing?

The Raptors have been learning first-hand: only players like Leonard. The best of the best.

His measurable production is extraordinary. Leonard will begin the NBA Finals averaging 31 points, nine rebounds and four assists while shooting 51 per cent from the floor for the post-season. He only lists with the best of the best, one-name only types.

Defensively, he helped decide the series by holding Antetokounmpo — the presumptive NBA MVP — to 18.6 points on 43.5-per cent shooting over the past four games as the primary defender in a team-wide plan to slow down the gifted 24-year-old.

Antetokounmpo’s regular-season marks? 30.4 points on 58-per cent shooting. Leonard basically erased the best player in the NBA over the course of the regular season in between scoring like peak LeBron James.

He makes you believe.

“Kawhi is like, I don’t know how many more good things I can say about him. He’s just so good,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “And again, I’m seeing a level of competitive greatness out of him. It’s just his willing us to win and him grabbing those rebounds and willing those shots in almost, it seems like, and going down and locking up somebody and taking the ball from them. It’s what it is — it’s great competitive desire.”

But it’s the Leonard vibe that has seemed to infuse the Raptors that may be even more meaningful — or share equal billing — with his other-worldly on-court skills.

Down 15 points with 14 minutes left, a chance to clinch the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance at home in front of a starved crowd perhaps slipping away, a Game 7 on the road in Milwaukee staring them in the face?

Leonard’s not worried, so why should anyone else be?

“It’s what you play basketball for, for those moments,” said Raptors guard Norman Powell, who scored nine points off the bench, his revival as a reserve one of the turning points in the series. “The one thing Kawhi really stressed to us was just to enjoy it. Don’t get too out of character, just enjoy the moment and continue to go out there and just lay it on the floor. So it was an amazing feeling just to be able to battle and chip away at it.

“It’s how you make history.”

Leonard is the rock.

“The one thing about Kawhi, and you guys all know it, is he literally stays level-headed all the time,” said Lowry, who provided 17 points, eight assists and his usual full menu of heady hustle plays as he earned a trip to his first NBA Finals after 13 seasons, and seven in Toronto.

“He never gets up, he never gets down. He showed some emotion after Game 7 against the Sixers [when he hit first buzzer-beating shot to clinch a seven-game series in NBA history]. But I think him and Danny [Green] brought that championship pedigree here, just kind of staying level-headed and even-keeled.”

The man in the building whose expression changes the least put smiles on the faces of millions.

Leonard isn’t giddy, just pleased he’s been able to fight through the injury woes that precipitated his divorce from San Antonio and enabled Raptors president Ujiri to trade for him in the first place.

“It’s great. I worked so hard to get to this point with the season I had last year, just always betting on myself and knowing what I feel and what’s right for me,” said Leonard. “I ended up coming here with a great group of guys, a lot of talent. And I just strived with them every day. I just kind of bought into their system … all that hard work just put together. Now we’re here and it’s exciting.”

The win was a release for a fanbase and a city, and maybe a rallying point for a country and a sport. Twenty-four years ago the team was either an oddity or the equivalent of your favourite indie band finally arriving on tour — a reward for the passionate few, irrelevant to the masses. When Vince Carter was soaring, a generation of kids found a new way to express themselves, and some of them grew up to soar themselves — Canada’s post-Steve Nash wave of NBA talent all cite Carter as an influence in some shape or form.

Those days seem distant know, from a time when basketball and the Raptors were still trying to work themselves into the conversation, when translation was still required.

Now? Basketball is the heart of the conversation. The Raptors are the lubricant, the common thread.

Times have changed. The city has changed, and the country too. The Raptors are going to the NBA Finals.

Leonard got them there. He’s a fun guy, even if doesn’t always show it, or talk about it.

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