The Toronto Raptors are a game away from winning the 2019 NBA Finals thanks to back-to-back wins against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. No matter how many times you repeat that sentence, it never loses its dream-like quality.
The man at the center of this accomplishment is so focused on the game that it looks like the sport’s biggest stage bores him. This, supposedly, is more evidence of his alien and robotic qualities.
After the Raptors beat the Warriors in Game 4, Kawhi Leonard was asked how he maintains his composure under so much pressure. His response summed up exactly what makes him so special:
“I don’t play hero basketball. I’m not playing for fans. I’m just playing to win. I’m not out here trying to break records …”
—Kawhi right after taking the 3-1 lead pic.twitter.com/rqcfo4X15I
— ESPN (@espn) June 8, 2019
While Leonard’s laconic interviews and stoic attitude make him an easy target for jokes, that unflappable demeanor is his most powerful weapon. It has transformed the Raptors, once known as perennial choke artists, into a team that never gets flustered.
“Kawhi was a great player, but he wasn’t a leader or anything,” Popovich said. “Manu and Patty were the leaders. Kawhi’s talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasn’t his deal at that time. That may come as he progresses, but Manu and Patty filled that role last year, and LaMarcus (Aldridge) came a long way in that regard also.”
However true that was with the Spurs, Leonard is the clear leader of the Raptors, especially in these playoffs. His leadership style, though, is easy to miss because it’s different from the stereotype of a leader in sports.
Sports are often talked about in war terms, and we seem to think that leaders should behave like great generals leading their side to victory in battle. That means scowling, teeth-gritting, chest-pounding, and screaming. That means seeing fiery individuals who often give big motivational speeches to push their team to their best. Draymond Green, for example, is the archetype of this kind of leader: expressive and visceral.
Leonard is on the opposite end of the spectrum. If you paid attention to his facial expressions and reactions throughout a game, you wouldn’t even know he was in the middle of playing in the NBA Finals. Whether his team is winning, losing, going almost six minutes without scoring, or on the cusp of winning the first title in franchise history, he maintains the same unshaken attitude.
This calm has infected the rest of his teammates. When the Raptors were down by double digits to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Leonard reportedly told his teammates to “enjoy the moment, stay here, stay together, we’re good.” Afterwards, Norm Powell praised Leonard for his ability to relax his teammates:
“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.”
“He’s always been that guy who you can look at when something goes bad. He just has that calm demeanor. It gives you that peace, knowing that everything is going to be OK. And I feel like that every time I’m on the floor with him.”
Leonard is far more than a man of few words. Those words are always followed by action.
In Game 6 against Milwaukee, Leonard scored eight of the last 10 points in the third quarter to start the eventual 26-3 run that would put Toronto into the Finals. In Game 4 against Golden State, Leonard kept Toronto in the game singlehandedly in the first quarter, and Toronto went into halftime only down four despite playing poorly. Before the Warriors could begin their patented onslaught at the beginning of the third quarter, Leonard hit back-to-back threes to gave the Raptors their first lead of the game.
QUESTION: What changed in the third quarter?
Fred VanVleet: “Kawhi Leonard came out and hit two big eff-you shots to start the half. There’s no defense for that. There are no schemes for that.” pic.twitter.com/TVHWALZ3pQ
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) June 8, 2019
For so long, the Raptors have been known for collapsing under pressure. That identity was so ingrained that regardless of their regular-season success, few truly believed in their ability to succeed in the playoffs. Thanks to Leonard, that distinction no longer applies.
It’s true that LeBron James is not in the East to terrorize the Raptors anymore, but these playoffs have pushed them their limits as well. In each series, their opponents have driven them to the point where any other Raptors team would have been overwhelmed.
Yet, this Raptors team doesn’t get flustered. They lost Game 1 to Orlando and swept the next four. They fell behind 2-1 to Philadelphia and responded with a gritty Game 4 win and a marathon Game 7 victory punctuated by Leonard’s four-bounce game-winner. They fell behind 2-0 to the Bucks in the next round, only to win four straight, including a double-overtime victory in Game 3.
In these Finals, the Warriors have had moments when they’ve look unbeatable, but the Raptors never panic. They just come back out, double their effort on both ends, and grind away until they earn the victory.
In describing the power of a true leader, David Foster Wallace once wrote:
“A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with ‘inspire’ being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own.”
Kawhi Leonard lets the rest of the Raptors relax. Not because he’s carrying the team individually all the time, but because he’s never unsettled by the situation, good or bad. His teammates, once prone to bouts of panic, now look at him for guidance and mirror his attitude. Leonard goes about his work on both ends with focus, control, and intensity, and those qualities have been the keys to Toronto’s miraculous run.
Leonard’s leadership qualities have illustrated the most surreal aspect of this ridiculous Raptors dream: the Raptors, the team that’s known for falling apart, now has collective championship mettle. Leonard might not fit into the traditional idea of a leader, but he is the ultimate leader for a Raptors team now on the cusp of basketball immortality.