Kawhi Leonard loses zero sleep pondering his place in the pantheon of NBA greats. The Toronto Raptors’ All-Star is restlessly pursuing only one thing: a championship ring.
“I’m not playing the game for (notoriety),” Leonard said at NBA Finals media day Wednesday.
“I’m playing to have fun and try to be the best player I can be. I’m happy with myself and what I have done in my career and I’m just going to keep on from there. It’s not about me being famous or want to have more fame than those guys. It’s about me playing basketball and having fun on the floor.”
This is Leonard’s third trip to the NBA Finals, first going as a 21-year-old member of the San Antonio Spurs in 2013, when he was two years removed from playing at San Diego State. One of the Golden State Warriors’ five consecutive trips to the Finals came at the expense of the Spurs, but Leonard said that experience and his time in the Western Conference means little these days.
Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri pulled the trigger on a Leonard-DeMar DeRozan deal when it became clear the Spurs weren’t going to hold onto Leonard for the final year of his contract. Now Leonard, who went to Canada in a trade that also included Danny Green, has the Raptors in their first NBA Finals and on the doorstep of another title.
He was the 2014 Finals MVP when the Spurs steamrolled LeBron James and the Miami Heat in five games.
“Kawhi’s quiet, but he’s relentless,” Ujiri said Wednesday.
“I tell you, his work ethic is almost crazy with his regimen, taking care of his body and doing all the work. When you see the preparation throughout the season you know what this kind of player, or you feel what this kind of player is going to produce. You don’t wish this kind of injury on anybody, but you could tell with him it was a priority to get back to the highest level.”
Last season, Leonard had 26 points in the first three quarters of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, and the Spurs were up 78-60, when he went down with an ankle injury that shelved him for the entire series. The Warriors rallied to win the game and the series, which coach Steve Kerr didn’t dismiss as peripheral memory quite as easily as Leonard.
“He was having a great game,” Kerr said. “They were having their way with us. In terms of how Kawhi has developed — he’s definitely older, I think he’s wiser. He’s probably more aware of how teams will try to play him. No matter how you slice it, a superstar in this league, one of the top few players in the NBA.”
A calendar month from free agency, Leonard is in the midst of one of the best individual playoff runs in NBA history. While he might not be concerned about media attention or making best-of lists, numbers are starting to make that case on his behalf.
In the 2019 playoffs, Leonard has 11 games with 30-plus points. The only players in postseason history with more such games prior to the Finals are Michael Jordan (13 in 1989, 12 in 1990) and Hakeem Olajuwon (12 in 1995).
“Kawhi again takes a lot of pride in being a two-way player. That’s again where it starts. You have to want to do it,” Raptors first-year coach Nick Nurse said.
“Then he has some IQ. He has some really good athleticism. He has really big hands that get in there and snatch the ball away sometimes. And I always say that what probably impresses me about him more than anything — the scoring is great and the big baskets are great and all that stuff — but when he makes up his mind to impact a play on the defensive end, and next thing you know he’s got the ball coming the other way and getting maybe a transition bucket. Those are huge momentum plays.”