In what feels like an eternity ago, journeyman point guard D.J. Augustin made the biggest shot of his NBA career in the final ticks of the first game of the playoffs. Marc Gasol and Kawhi Leonard botched a pick-and-roll coverage and Augustin stepped into a top-of-the-key jumper for an Orlando win in Toronto.
Between then and now, we’ve seen the Toronto Raptors and Leonard have many moments that define a career and create a legacy.
We saw Leonard’s high-arching jumper hang in the air for seemingly an hour before bouncing on the rim for what felt like two, before settling in the basket to eliminate Philadelphia. We saw Leonard and his team fall down 2-0 to Milwaukee before he put the clamps on Giannis Antetokounmpo. And we saw Leonard take the fight to Golden State to claim Toronto’s first title and Leonard’s second NBA Finals most valuable player award.
These are things you cherish, the pinnacle of athletic endeavors. They’re not the kinds of experiences anyone would just walk away from.
Then there’s this other thing we saw this postseason, and that might matter more than any of all this. Leonard is, not just “anyone.”
With his championship T-shirt soaked with a mixture of sweat and champagne — much more the latter — Leonard tried to explain his thinking over the last 12 months. Whether he intended to or not, he might’ve dropped a few clues about his future.
When he was dealt to the Raptors last summer, it wasn’t where he wanted to go — that was Los Angeles and, preferably,to the Lakers. That preference seemed to change after LeBron James came to town, with the Clippers becoming Leonard’s presumed future home.
But Leonard is an all-world compartmentalizer with an almost unmatched ability to focus on the immediate task without letting emotions or distractions get in the way.
“I wanted to make history here and that's all I did. I just, I'm still playing basketball no matter what jersey I have on.”
Leonard went on to talk about how he tried to make things work in Toronto, tried to forge a bond with Kyle Lowry despite being traded for Lowry’s best friend, DeMar DeRozan.
He succeeded. There’s a genuine chemistry between the two players — Leonard so basketball-focused and Lowry focused on doing anything he can to win games.
And Leonard won in a place no basketball star had won before.
It was as successful as a player possibly could be with his new team — and still, there’s no guarantee the Raptors will be able to keep him.
While his teammates were soaking the carpets in the visitors’ locker room at Oracle Arena, Leonard made it clear that so much of this past season — his demand to be traded from San Antonio, his quest to regain his form after missing almost all of last season because of injury — was personal.
“I just knew that I would have to make myself happy and no one else,” Leonard said. “And I have to trust myself. And whatever, it doesn't matter what anybody has to say about me. I know who I am as a person, I know how I feel, and always just trust yourself. And that was my goal and my focus.”
Toronto, which has been playing from behind in terms of Leonard’s recruitment all season, provided the framework for him to succeed. The Raptors worked with him to limit his games played in the regular season. The team and organization adapted to his business-first personality.
They put the ball in his hands and allowed him to dictate winning and losing in the postseason while giving him the platform to prove that he might be the basketball player today.
It was the best pitch the Raptors could make — and it still might not matter.
Suddenly, the Eastern Conference looks like it’ll house the top contenders with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia and Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. With the Warriors’ injuries, the West is more open than it’s been.
This summer will be the first time Leonard has gotten to choose where he works. And there’s a sense that if someone as determined as him ever had his eyes set on Southern California, not even a title could change it.
In fact, it might allow Leonard to close the door on the Raptors more gently, leaving them on the best possible terms. Remember, people thought Oklahoma City’s first-round exit in 2018 would lead to Paul George coming to the Lakers. Instead he stayed, citing “unfinished business.”
The trade between the Spurs and Raptors might’ve been consummated last June, but the transaction didn’t get completed until Thursday night.
Before Game 2, Leonard was asked about how the city of Toronto was trying to recruit him, the free meals and the high-rise property offers.
“I appreciate them for their support,” he said. “Coming in, I wanted to be able to contribute to the team and be able to get them to this point, and we're doing it so far. I just feel like I did something special for them, just this group, just being able to be the first team to get to the NBA Finals for Toronto.”
He did that. It was special. It was historic. And now, he can do what he wants and play where he wants.