Kawhi Leonard topped the presumptive MVP by sending Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee Bucks back home. Coming up big when a Game 7 appeared inevitable, he lead Toronto to their first Finals in franchise history.
Even if this is Kawhi's lone season in the Great Big North, making their maiden NBA Finals was worth it. For years, their regular season success cast a shadow of their hollow postseason performances. LeBron James saw the Raptors as a revolving door. He strolled past them year after year to get to the NBA Finals. In his first year out of the east, the Raptors reaped the rewards of their gamble to play in June for the first time in franchise history. Coming down from a 2-0, they evened the series before stealing winning at the Fiserv Arena to come 48 minutes away from a light they thought they could see. Finding themselves down 15 late in the third quarter, they rallied back dramatically and now stand in the way of the Warriors from three-peating.
Long seen as a system player, Kawhi has shown that he can succeed outside the San Antonio system that might just be the best basketball player in the world. LeBron James failed to make the playoffs and isn't getting any younger. Kevin Durant had a dream run injuring his calf against the Rockets. Leonard overpowered the Greek Freak and has proven to be merely indestructible. After a slow first half, he roared back by scoring 19 after halftime and finished off the night with clutch free throws to seal Raptors win.
Leonard over this postseason - particularly in the past four games - was the exact player the Raptors were missing. Simply put, he is a cold-blooded killer. Parting with DeMar DeRozan; a perennial All-Star, fan-favorite, and a player willing to take a pay cut to for the betterment of the team, was never going to be easy. It left a sour taste in the mouth so many, including and especially Kyle Lowry. Leonard is calm and collected when the palms of most are sweaty. He has a mastery of the game that few have ever possessed. Time and again the Raptors found themselves down by double digits. Each time, Kawhi was the one to lead them to victory. Switch onto Giannis from Game 3 onwards proved to be the difference in the series. His ability to slow down the Greek Freak to point where the Bucks offense was stagnant. The only chink in his arsenal was his passing and the lack of evidence that he could run an offense. He was able to shrug off double teams and set up shooters and cutters. Being a juggernaut on both ends of the floor did appear to run him out of gas during stretches over the series though he was able to climb that mountain. Carrying an incredible burden while slowing down Giannis to the point of forcing the presumptive MVP into having some of his worst playoff moments has been no easy task. But the gamble paid off. And he's the face of a Raptors teams that just made their first ever NBA Finals.
The series looked over after the Bucks took a commanding 2-0 lead. Taking the Number One seed out of their rhythm was key to the Raptors triumph. Slowing the game down and forcing the Milwaukee into playing in halfcourt made them falter and panic. Toronto blossomed by grinding the game down. Patience was crucial, and they consistently found the hot hand.
The unsung hero of the series was Fred VanValeet's newborn child. VanVleet was 2-13 from beyond the arc through the first three games. The birth of his son sparked a fire in his belly and went 14-17 from three including 4-5 in Game Six. Toronto was able to generate shots and connect at a more efficient rate than the Bucks across the floor. Milwaukee looked out of sorts when Giannis was kept out of the paint and were unable to run on the break. Toronto took the Bucks out of their gameplan, and the one seed failed to adjust.
At 24, Antetokounmpo has yet to hit his prime and still has so much more to add to his repertoire. He was able to best Pascal Siakam thought Leonard proved to be too much for him to handle. Kawhi's size, strength, footwork, and instincts make him one the greatest defenders of all-time. Giannis was a shell of himself and struggled to generate clean shots. Shooting 75% from the line in Games One and Two, he shot under 50% from the charity stripe in their four losses. Getting to the line wasn't the issue. His confidence and iffy shooting form held him back. The rest of the Bucks roster looked like shadows in comparison to their regular season selves. Giannis drew double and triple teams and his passing when swarmed was subpar. When the likes of Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe got the ball, they failed to step up. For a team that is set up to be a dominant force in the East for years to come, it was concerning to see that most of the squad were 82 game players rather than 16.
This series will forever be remembered by the fact that Kawhi Leonard took Toronto to the Finals. He's playing his best basketball at a time when there were doubts that he had fully recovered from a quad injury. The last time we'd seen Kawhi in the playoffs, he had the Spurs up by 22 points against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. It's hard to believe that he's taken his pay up from that level. He's the missing link that has taken Toronto out of their rut, and the Six can finally begin to shed the insecurity complex that they were defined by. Push comes to shove, and when Nick Nurse finds his back against the wall, he can always rely on Kawhi iso to get a bucket. No matter who the other team has, Nurse knows he has the best defender in the league to shut them down. Even though this is not the best squad the Warriors have faced in the Finals, Kawhi is a force to be reckoned with now that Durant is set to miss the first two games of the series. It is safe to say that he is the best player on form though he might not be enough to beat the defending champs. But it cannot be ignored that he will be the best player on the floor come May 30th when the Finals tip off in Scotiabank Arena. This is why Masai Ujiri traded for him. He has the exact mold of the player to transform them from pretenders to contenders.
Their celebrations aside, the season is not over the Raptors. They are the underdogs with Leonard and Danny Green being the only Raptors to have Finals experience. With Durant still sidelined, this is the best chance any team has had to dethrone the Warriors since the former-MVP moved to the Bay Area. Regardless of the outcome, this has been one of the most pivotal series in Raptors history. It was a high risk-high reward situation. Reconstructing the team to ruthlessly trade a franchise great combined with trades at the deadline worked out perfectly. Toronto just went from good to great and can finally say that they have the best player on the floor. Welcome to the NBA Finals, Toronto Raptors.