Early in his NBA career, after his once-creaky jumper had been rebuilt but before he’d become a bonafide superstar, Kawhi Leonard was just one part of a team that will be widely celebrated in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
He played for Gregg Popovich. He played with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and, best of all, Tim Duncan.
Somewhere along the way to the podium at the end of the 2014 NBA Finals, the place where Leonard’s arrival couldn’t be ignored anymore, Popovich decided it was time to empower the team’s future.
“He wants more,” Popovich told reporters during the season. “He wants me and the coaches to push him. So I just talked to him about not being in that ‘defer’ sort of stage. The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu, you play the game.
“You are the man."
That was realized by the end of that season, when Leonard, then 22, became the youngest player to win a Finals MVP.
So when he sits at the podium in Milwaukee and says he’s not afraid of the moment, after delivering what could be the prelude to an Eastern Conference finals knockout with a Game 5 victory over the Bucks, what choice do you have but to believe him?
This guy is clearly the man.
“He wants the ball, and he wants to make the plays,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said after Game 5. “And he seems to be making the right play for the most part. You're almost shocked when he pulls up at 15 feet and it doesn't go in. I mean, he vaults up there and he has a good release on it, you think, ‘Well, there's two more [points],’ and it doesn't go in, and you're like, ‘Man, what happened?’
“He's playing at both ends. He's rebounding. And again, it really gives the rest of the guys a lot of confidence when you've got a guy playing like that.”
Heading into Game 6 on Saturday in Toronto, Leonard’s playoff performance has been one of the best ever. He’s averaging 31.4 points on 51.4% shooting and 8.4 rebounds. The other players to meet that benchmark in a postseason while playing more than four games are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (four times), LeBron James (twice), Hakeem Olajuwon and Wilt Chamberlain.
He’s been outstanding against the Bucks, helping lead them to three consecutive wins while also taking on the responsibility of being the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s probably looked even more impressive when contrasted with the Bucks, who haven’t faced this kind of test on this kind of stage.
Leonard and a handful of teammates have.
“Experience helps a lot. You know, just from my input, I've been here before. I've been to the Finals, and it's pretty much nothing new that I'm seeing out there,” Leonard said after Game 5. “You've just got to have fun with it and enjoy it. Like I told [my team] tonight, we were down 10. I told them to enjoy the moment and embrace it and let's have fun and love it. This is why we're here.”
If their experience allowed the Raptors to not drown in the big waves of emotion Thursday night, it certainly helped them not overreact to trailing 2-0 in the series. Instead of panicking, the Raptors calmly have made adjustments, whether it was changing rotations or defensive assignments, to get themselves to the cusp of the first Finals in franchise history.
“We understood,” guard Kyle Lowry said. “Like, listen, this is the Eastern Conference finals. It's never going to be easy. It's going to be tough. And you've got a team down there that's really, really talented, really, really good. But we just go out there and play our game.
“You've got an opportunity to make adjustments on the fly, one day to kind of adjust, to prepare, to recover, and it's been crazy grueling, but it's been a fun process.”
It’s the Bucks’ turn to adjust, to veer from the formula that netted them the NBA’s best record. In the postseason, it’s what you have to do.
In 2014, Popovich knew it was time for Leonard to be the man.