The last time we saw Playoff Kawhi Leonard was in 2017. He was writhing in pain on the floor of Oracle Arena. As he had done countless times before, he pulled up for one of his vintage corner jumpers when a suspect close out from Zaza Pachulia caused Leonard to land awkwardly on Pachulia’s foot, injuring Leonard’s ankle.
Leonard’s San Antonio Spurs team was up 23 points on the Golden State Warrior in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Once he left the game, the Warriors erased that deficit and would go on to win the game—and ultimately the series—over a Kawhi-less Spurs team searching for answers.
The biggest story of that series loss? Kawhi Leonard’s bum ankle and whether the Spurs may have won that series. One play changed the trajectory of Leonard’s career and his relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, one of the most storied franchises in sports.
A lot can change in two years. Leonard played all of nine games for the Spurs after the incident at Oracle. The acrimonious relationship between him and the Spurs is well-documented and played out like a modern-day soap opera in the 2017-2018 season. Eventually, the Spurs traded Leonard—and franchise favorite Danny Green— to Toronto for Demar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round pick in 2019.
Spurs fans were devastated. Leonard was the perfect heir apparent to Tim Duncan. Unassuming, quiet, eclectic and workmanlike, the keys to the Spurs Kingdom were his for the taking. Instead, in the summer of 2018, he found himself taking his talents north of the border to Toronto. With more questions than answers. The Raptors were taking a huge gamble going after a one-year rental. Leonard would become a free agent in 2019. Many assumed the Raptors’ move was desperate. All signs pointed to Leonard heading to Los Angeles, with 2018-2019 being a season for him to prove that he was back as the best two-way player in the game.
Toronto got way more than they bargained for. Leonard returned to the playoffs in 2019, knowing full well he might make his way back to the scene of the crime—Oracle Arena.
Kawhi’s body of work during the playoffs is the stuff of legend. A buzzer beater to defeat a tough, gritty 76ers team. Lockdown defense on Giannis Antetekumpo in the Eastern Conference Finals, leading his team to take four straight games from the Bucks and cruise into the NBA Finals. Nine straight road games with 29 or more points. In a decisive Game 4 on the road against the Warriors, Leonard dominated the third quarter to a tune of 17 points—including two nasty three-pointers that he walked into as he crossed half court like he was Steph Curry. That’s when we knew. Kawhi was back, back!
Now he has the chance to close out one the most dominant franchises in NBA history and end a dynasty.
The King…of the North
Kawhi Leonard has put the city of Toronto on his back. And he has done it living in a city he didn’t want to live in. He has done it playing for a team he didn’t want to play for. If you think about it, it’s the most Kawhi Leonard thing ever. Playing with the cards he’s dealt. And doing it masterfully—like he’s got a great, claw-filled hand in a game of spades.
Despite his early reservations and disappointment, Kawhi has made a home for himself in Toronto—at least for a year.
One thing is for certain. Leonard is now getting the league-wide attention he deserves. And he’s proving that he is one of the best players in the league on one of the biggest stages in sports.
Sometimes transcendence arrives in the form of New Balance sneakers and braids. Kawhi chose to go the unconventional route and sign with a brand best known for running shoes. Maybe he knew something we didn’t. That he’d be running circles around the league for years to come.
Leonard is, indeed, the King of the North. If he closes out the Warriors, he will also become the Kingslayer—a title previously held by some guy in Los Angeles.
Can we just say what Spurs fans have known for years? Leonard is the future of the NBA. Trust me, as a Spurs fan, it pains me to write those words. But I have known that fact since 2014—when he won Finals MVP with three future Hall of Famers in the same lineup. It has just taken others time to see the future in action in the NBA Finals again.
Kawhi’s next move might garner more attention than any other coveted free agents. And rightfully so. People have realized that he is just that good. He changes the game on both ends of the court.
In the 2019 playoffs, Leonard has reasserted his presence in the NBA. Playoff Kawhi Leonard has evolved. And, as only Kawhi Leonard can, he has done it…his way.