Without Kawhi, Raptors have remained among NBA’s elite

Check out the full scrum, as Kawhi Leonard talks to the Toronto media for the first time since leading the Raptors to the NBA Championship.

The Toronto Raptors – those that remain – have done Kawhi Leonard a tremendous favour.

What they’ve done isn’t on the scale of what Leonard did for the Raptors in his one magnificent, storybook season in Toronto, maybe, but it’s not insignificant, either.

They’ve kept it rolling.

On Wednesday night, when Leonard makes is first visit to Scotiabank Arena since leading the Raptors to the NBA championship, the reunion with Raptors fans and teammates alike will be that much more enjoyable because his former teammates have proven that they were pretty damn good, too. It wasn’t and never was “Kawhi and the back-up singers,” as Raptors guard Fred VanVleet once correctly labelled the common misperception.

Leonard may have opted to return home when he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers and worked to pry Paul George out of Oklahoma City to join him, but what’s left behind in Toronto is hardly some kind of cratered wreck.

The Raptors were an elite team before he arrived and have remained one in his absence.

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We all knew that. He was joining a 59-win team that might have been Finals bound were it not for the LeBron James-sized mental block in their collective brains. Last season, when the Raptors went 17-5 in games Leonard didn’t play, it was not a fluke — even if it was against some lesser opponents. That they’ve gone 15-7 this year and remain in the conversation among the NBA’s elite is surprising only because they’ve done it despite some significant injuries, but not in the big picture.

So that means Leonard can come to Toronto with a clear conscience – if he were ever one to be troubled by such a thing. Not that he should be.

He arrived here by trade, performed to the highest level a professional can and then took his first chance to head home.

I’ve always felt that Leonard’s true commitment to the franchise, and by extension the city, came in increments. Even his teammates were not quite sure what to make of him and the way he carried himself early on, as the loads were managed and the poker face remained unbroken.

“It wasn’t a matter of trusting (that Leonard would be ready for the playoffs),” VanVleet told me during the playoffs last year. “It was a matter of waiting: All right, he’s resting, but what the hell is he resting for?”

“The only thing is he (didn’t) really talk a whole lot so you never really knew when he was or wasn’t going to play and they certainly didn’t post his schedule on the wall so we knew what games he wasn’t going to play.”

It was confusing. Was he in it to win it? Or was he in it to get through it and win somewhere else down the road?

But then the playoffs started and Leonard began to take charge, gaining momentum one jaw-dropping performance at a time. While easing into things in Game 1 against Orlando — these things being relative, he had 25 points on 18 shots — his Raptors playoff debut was marred somewhat by messing up a defensive assignment that allowed the Magic’s D.J. Augustin to hit a game-winner in the upset.

He asserted himself with 37 points in Game 2 and the Raptors were off. He greeted the Sixers with 45 points and 11 rebounds in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal, held them at bay with his 39-point, 14-rebound and five-assist masterpiece in Game 4 before breaking their hearts with his historic, iconic, four-bounce game-winner in Game 7.

But his moment of no return came when he played a career-high 52 minutes – including 22 straight to finish the game – in the Raptors double-overtime win in Game 3 against the Milwaukee Bucks to avoid Toronto falling behind 3-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Twice during the win Leonard came up limping, visibly favouring his knee. He was offered the opportunity to take Game 4 to recover as the Raptors arranged an MRI for him on the off day after Game 3.

The pending free agent with a history of injury woes gave an answer that changed the trajectory of the franchise.

“I’m playing,” was his reply.

It was in Game 4 that VanVleet turned into Kyle Korver and Leonard, clearly compromised, grew to trust his teammates even more.

There were moments in the rest of the playoffs when Leonard took over games, but it didn’t seem as necessary as teammates Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Norm Powell, Marc Gasol and VanVleet all had their moments to help lighten Leonard’s load.

In that sense, those who were watching carefully know that the ring Leonard will be presented with Wednesday night in front of friends and family wasn’t one he won alone — those he left behind have carried on what he helped elevate.

As a result, the expectation is he’ll get the kind of welcome departing free agents don’t normally get anywhere, and certainly not in Toronto, as history has proven over and over again.

But the bitterness of the past has been about rejection and unfinished business.

Leonard delivered and then took care of his own business, an entirely different thing.

That means Leonard can travel to Toronto with the Clippers and have his girlfriend and two youngsters join him – a play date had already been tentatively scheduled for Leonard’s daughter and Masai Ujiri’s youngest son – and bask in the warmth of a crowd before which he performed some of his greatest magic tricks.

One way or the other it should be a special night, and a unique one. Leonard is the first NBA Finals MVP to start the following season with another team, which means Wednesday night will be the first time a Finals MVP receives his championship ring wearing an opposing uniform.

The expectation is he’ll be greeted as a returning hero, given he certainly was one when he was here.

There is good reason why Sportsnet voted him the No. 2 Raptor of all time even though his career only spanned 84 games (including playoffs), or why he had the last word – well, laugh – at the Raptors championship parade, or why he’ll be the only Raptor to spurn the city and still be welcome upon his return.

He was the unquestioned MVP and the rising tide that lifted all ships.

But the help he had is still carrying the load in his absence.

It will be a reunion of equals.

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