Kawhi has now stopped two three-peats from happening.
Heading into the 2018-2019 NBA season, there were a plethora of questions surrounding Kawhi Leonard and his character. On Thursday night, Leonard put all of the doubters out to pasture as he led the Toronto Raptors to their first ever NBA Championship all the while winning his second NBA Finals MVP trophy.
Kawhi’s motivations were believed to be dubious considering the fact that he only played nine games with the San Antonio Spurs last season after a quad injury kept him out of the lineup. This was a controversial injury as the Spurs claimed he was fine to play, but Leonard and his camp thought otherwise. The Spurs had been good at avoiding disputes in the past but the tension between Kawhi and the team doctors was too strong to ignore.
Eventually, Leonard requested a trade out of San Antonio and he was shipped off to the Raptors along with teammate Danny Green. At first, rumors swirled that Leonard had no interest in playing in Toronto but as soon as he stepped onto the court, it became apparent that he was turning the team into a viable contender.
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Kawhi’s immediate impact with the Raptors is no coincidence and if you’ve been following “The Klaw” since his college days, you knew he’d be a star. Now, with two championships under his belt and two Finals MVP’s to boot, it’s time to crown Leonard as the league’s dynasty killer.
The quiet kid from Los Angeles, California was drafted 15th overall by the Indiana Pacers in 2011 and was immediately traded to the San Antonio Spurs. Leonard joined a squad with veteran champions like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili which allowed him to learn from some of the best in the game.
Leonard would make his presence felt in the league right away thanks to his ability to play strong offensively and even stronger defensively. In 2013, Leonard’s efforts would be rewarded when he and the Spurs went to the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat.
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This would be Leonard’s first time playing against a dynasty of such high magnitude. The Heat were packed with talented superstars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. At the time, the Heat were considered an unbeatable force having made three straight NBA Finals. In the end, the Heat were victorious in seven games, giving them their second title in a row.
The following year, Leonard and the Spurs would come back with a vengeance as their only goal was to win a championship and keep the Heat from achieving a three-peat. After a hard-fought 2014 campaign, the Spurs and the Heat found themselves in a rematch of the previous year’s finals.
With last year’s defeat fresh in his mind, Kawhi stepped up his game and completely shut down LeBron James, who many felt was an unstoppable player. Sure, LeBron was able to put up big numbers, but Leonard’s defense had the King so frustrated that he would get visibly upset when Kawhi checked into the game. It was apparent that Leonard was a man on a mission and he made the Heat look like fools.
During the 2014 NBA Finals, Leonard averaged 17.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. His performance would lead the Spurs to their fifth NBA Championship in 15 years thus cementing the franchise as one of the best in the league. Leonard would also be rewarded with his first ever NBA Finals MVP trophy.
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In the immediate aftermath of the Spurs victory, the Heat completely dismantled their superteam as LeBron James went back to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Once LeBron left, the Heat were able to make the playoffs a few times but never even sniffed the finals again. This would be the first time Kawhi would completely destroy what was thought to be an all-time great dynasty.
Fast forward five years later and the Toronto Raptors have just guaranteed the second seed in the Eastern Conference with Kawhi as their centerpiece. The team begins their journey to playoff glory and easily knockoff the Orlando Magic in the first round in five-game series full of blowouts
The second round would prove to be the Raptors toughest test of the playoffs as the Philadelphia 76ers pushed them to seven games. On the last possession of Game 7, with the score tied 90-90, Kawhi took the ball close to the baseline and chucked up a desperation shot with Joel Embiid in his face. After four nailbiting bounces, the ball went in and the Raptors went to their second ever Eastern Conference Finals. Leonard’s heroics proved that this team was destined for something great.
From there, Kawhi outmuscled the Greek Freak himself, Giannis Antetokounmpo in a six-game Eastern Conference Finals series for the ages. In just his first season with the team, Leonard led the Raptors to their first ever NBA Finals. From there, the Raptors went on to face one of the most feared dynasties of all time for the championship.
Including this season, the Golden State Warriors had made it to five-straight NBA Finals and had won three championships. With Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala, the team had won two straight titles and just like the 2014 Miami Heat, they were going for the three-peat.
Thanks to Durant’s injury though, Kawhi saw an opportunity to take advantage of the Warriors and that’s exactly what he did. Leonard and the Raptors were methodical all throughout the Finals as they put up huge threes, all while playing some of the best defense the league had seen this season. Leonard improved on his stats from the 2014 Finals by averaging 28.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game.
Last night, the Raptors were one win away from knocking off the two-time defending champions and Leonard unleashed his inner beast to put the Warriors away. Kawhi put up 22 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists, including the last three free throws of the game to sure up the win.
What makes this Raptors win so interesting is the implications it has on the Warriors dynasty. Kevin Durant is a free agent this Summer and with an injury that could keep him out an entire year, there is a big chance that he’ll end up leaving the team. Meanwhile, Klay Thompson is a free agent as well and while he’ll most likely re-sign, his ACL injury will keep him out of the lineup until 2020. With these factors at play, the Warriors could be in for a frustrating season.
Another important factor here is whether or not Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans gets traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. If this happens, LeBron and Davis could have their way with the Western Conference and dethrone the Warriors as the best in the West.
While all of these scenarios are what-ifs, it’s safe to say that once again, Kawhi Leonard has managed to pull the rug from underneath another great dynasty. He helped turn the Heat into a team desperately trying to tread water while competing for playoffs spots and now, he’s exposed the Warriors as a team with many weaknesses.
Leonard is the dynasty killer and no matter how many more championships he wins, that’s what he will always be remembered for.