After his unbelievable buzzer-beating, series-clinching heroics Sunday night and a scorching playoff run, Kawhi Leonard has firmly established himself as the best player in Toronto Raptors franchise history by a wide margin.
Bounce, bounce, bounce, swish!
With one improbable shot this past Sunday (captured in countless videos, multiple angles and more than a few memes around the internet), Kawhi Leonard saved the Toronto Raptors’ season.
In that single instant, Leonard entrenched himself in the hearts and minds of the Raptors faithful— a silent, deadly hero. What started out as an icy cold (and robotic) relationship, following the trade of DeMar DeRozan, has blossomed into a torrid, steamy love affair.
What’s not to love!
Leonard pretty much single-handedly won the series against the 76ers. According to Chicco Nacion, his 243 total points scored against them are the third most in a playoff series post-ABA-NBA merger (1977), trailing only Michael Jordan (246) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (260).
In doing so, he’s established himself as arguably the best player in the NBA, and without a doubt, the best player the Raptors have ever employed. In his first (and maybe only) season, Leonard has elevated his play so far beyond what the franchise has seen before, into the stratosphere, it’s not even close.
Let’s break down the basketball genius of the Klaw.
What came before
Over the course of multiple seasons, these players created lasting legacies.
Going in reverse chronological order, the Raptors drafted DeMar DeRozan in 2009. After an extended learning curve, DeRozan became a star, guiding the team through an extended run of success— multiple division titles, a conference title while showing an admirable loyalty to the city of Toronto. In the playoffs though, he struggled and the team stagnated.
It’s almost the same story with Chris Bosh. Drafted by the Raptors in 2003, Bosh was thrown into the fire early on in his career, taking a rebuilding franchise and leading it to the playoffs in successive seasons. But there were complications. After multiple early exits, Bosh became disillusioned and left in 2010 for the Miami Heat to join his friends.
And then there is Vince Carter— Half-Man, Half-Amazing. Carter led the Raptors to their first-ever playoffs and playoff series victory. However, in the most critical moment, Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers in 2001, he missed the game-winning shot. In my mind, Carter was the Raptors’ first and best player.
In just one season and two playoff series, Leonard has eclipsed all of these icons with his transcendent play.
He is the first true Toronto Raptors superstar. Leonard has that supreme gift to utterly demoralize the opposition (see the 76ers, Magic) with his skill— the only way to truly stop him is to get the ball out of his massive hands. He rises to the pressure in crucial moments, he’s uber-efficient and as we’ve just seen, can single-handedly win series.
‘Star among stars’
So just how good is Kawhi Leonard? Take a look at these impressive facts and figures.
- He’s the first player since Michael Jordan to ever decide a winner-take-all NBA playoff game at the buzzer;
- In the second round against the Philadelphia 76ers, Leonard averaged 34.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, four assists and 1.3 steals on 53 percent shooting. Over the course of those seven games, the Raptors outscored the opposition by 34 points in Leonard’s 278 minutes on the floor;
- In the pivotal Game 7, Leonard entered the fourth quarter shooting 10-of-30 from the field, only to score 15 points in the final frame on 6-of-9 shooting, single-handedly outscoring the Sixers 13-12 over the final 6:11;
- For the postseason, Leonard is averaging 31. 8 points per game with 8.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals. He’s already scored 30-plus points seven times.
After a lost season due to injury and internal turmoil, the media and general public forgot about Leonard; people are fickle and are always on the lookout for the next great thing.
Right now though, Leonard is getting his due. Offense, defense, and improved playmaking skills, this man is showing a little bit of everything.
Understandably, everyone is buzzing about Leonard’s game-winning shot from the other night. But what comes next for the greatest player to put on a Raptors’ uniform?
For one, there’s the offseason. Where in the world will Leonard go? Have the Raptors defrosted his cold heart or will he go back to his hometown? Everybody has an opinion, but nobody truly knows.
But today, in the here and now, the focus is on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.
In the midst of all this excitement, it’d be foolish to overlook these formidable foes. While the spotlight will definitely be on Leonard and Antetokounmpo, if the Raptors want to advance to their first-ever NBA Finals, they must share the load and play with sustained intensity.
This should be a good one.