OAKLAND, CALIF.—Some people speak of him in whispers, as if telling tales of a legend. Some just laugh. It’s spooky, says one Toronto assistant, with reverence. He’s special, says a different staffer, the word freighted with feeling. After Game 4 in Philadelphia, when Kawhi hit a test version of The Shot in Game 7, a Sixers executive asked, a little unsure, “He can’t keep doing this, can he?” Toronto was falling through the air that night in Philly, and Kawhi lifted them back up.
He is still lifting them up, as high as they can go. The Toronto Raptors are on the verge of a championship, and if they win Monday the city and country will erupt. The Golden State Warriors are champions, limping or not, so it is no formality. Toronto leads the series three games to one. They could have had the one, too, but Kawhi, for once, missed a loose ball.
The series isn’t over. But we should pause to appreciate just what we are witnessing here. Toronto has had all kinds of sports moments in the last 50 years, few of them good, a couple of them truly great. This is a legend.
“Lucky,” said Raptors shooting guard Danny Green, on how he feels about playing with Kawhi both here, and in San Antonio before. “I’m very blessed to be able to be beside him for most of his whole career, to be along for the ride.”
Canada, too. At his best, Kawhi decides. In a league that tries to speed you up or slow you down, he exists so often in his own time, creating his own space. Defensively, he simply eats anyone they ask him to. Offensively, Kawhi is averaging 30.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.0 blocks in the Finals
Then there is the feeling. One Raptors staffer called that third-quarter Raptors tsunami Killer Zen, and that’s Kawhi. In Game 4 he got upset after being called for a foul on what he thought was a clean block, but like his rare flashes of temper during the regular season it was immediately subsumed by his calm. Kawhi’s emotions, when they surface, vanish quickly beneath his impassive sea. Even if they are surfacing a little more often now, as this gets close.
But watching his will, his ability to summon another level of basketball with implacable, pitiless force, has been stunning in its regularity. The third quarter of Game 4, where he scored 11 of his 17 points in the frame in the final 3:18, echoed the third quarter of Game 6 against Milwaukee, where he scored eight of his 12 third-quarter points in the final 2:01. He shoved the game. You saw Golden State abandon its defensive principles at times after that against Kawhi, splintering. At the highest levels, he was in control.
And Toronto has gotten to experience that feeling, just as his teammates have channelled it. Of course, when the season ends Kawhi controls everything, too: his NBA fate, the fortunes of more than one franchise, his life. On Friday ESPN aired a sitdown with Rachel Nichols and she asked, with free agency three weeks away, “Can you start to think about what factors are going to be important to you, what you think you’ll consider when you think about it?”
And Kawhi said, “Not now. I mean, obviously, you know, you know what you want, but I’m not thinking like, just because of this and this I’m going to re-sign. I’m not even thinking about re-signing, or what team I’m going to go to in free agency, none of that. I’m just focused on what’s in front of me right now, and once it’s over I’ll revisit everything.”
We don’t know if he will stay. There are indications going home to California to play for the Los Angeles Clippers is a real possibility. Nobody knows what winning a championship in Toronto would truly mean to him, going forward. We know what it means to him now, if we watch.
But that shouldn’t matter now. Experiencing this, a true legend at the height of his powers, surrounded by a team that can rise with him and topple a dynasty, is something to be inhaled, absorbed, accompanied by the joy it creates. It is so rare. If you are a Raptors fan, it is rarer still.
Back before the season began, longtime Toronto centre Jonas Valanciunas met Kawhi. He didn’t mind that the new guy was quiet: he saw a killer. He looked back at the Raptors before Kawhi, and saw something else.
“We just couldn’t get over the Cleveland hump,” said Valanciunas, who was sent to Memphis in the Marc Gasol trade. “It was there for us. But physically, basketball-wise, we had the talent. Mentally, we were struggling. I don’t know. I’ll say it in a not-nice way, but when the shit was breaking down, we were breaking down. When we’re supposed to be doing the opposite way, right? When the shit goes down we gotta man up, and do it ourselves.”
“So I was right.”
Valanciunas was asked what the Raptors had with Kawhi and Green in the fold. He mimed a crossover, to denote skill.
“We have this,” Valanciunas said.
He tapped his temple, denoting basketball smarts. They would get smarter, before the end.
“We have this,” he said.
And Valanciunas reached out and tapped me on the left side of my chest, over the heart. “But this is what we need to get. And I think good teams have mind, basketball stuff, physique, whatever. But really good teams have everything. So we have to somehow put everything in one place. Put the balls in, put the heart in. Connect everything, it’ll be good. Learn to put the foot on the neck. To do the small things. To be cool, but not too cool. Can’t be too cool.”
Valanciunas couldn’t see everything that was coming. Nobody now can truly see what’s coming next.
But that big Lithuanian had lived Toronto’s past and he saw its future, and the result is a Raptors team as steely-eyed, as resolute, as relentless in its murderous calm as its best player. Kawhi Leonard is here, now, one win from a title. And that, right now, is what matters.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur