In the battle of two superstars, Kawhi Leonard has emerged supreme. Leonard successfully led the Toronto Raptors to victory against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs. Leonard went toe-to-toe with Giannis for the duration of the contest, and in doing so, has inserted his name into the debate of who is the top player on the planet.
Any questions as to whether Leonard was worthy of his trade from the San Antonio Spurs this past summer have surely been put to bed after the small forward’s starring role in the Raptors’ playoff campaign. The Toronto franchise had never so much as sniffed a chance at the NBA finals, but Leonard’s arrival has instilled the team with some much-needed invigoration. That being said, putting the team on his back has been no easy feat for the reserved star. After hitting a buzzer beater in Game 7 of the Eastern semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers, Leonard clinched Game 6 for Toronto by overcoming a 15 point deficit to win 100-94.
Now, in a world where LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are around, Leonard appears to have surpassed each of those names to the title of greatest active player. In astonishing fashion, the overnight sensation handled athletic phenom and regular season Most Valuable Player Giannis with ease, neutralizing the Greek’s attempts at offensive play. Quite simply, Leonard showed up when it mattered most, and Giannis didn’t.
Leonard had 17 rebounds, seven assists and 27 points during the game, obtaining much of those stats in the second half. The “best current player” debate aside, this solidified Leonard’s ranking as the best clutch player in the league at the moment, if nothing else. Leonard scored 19 points in the second half, again dwarfing Giannis’ ability to perform in the more critical moments. When Raptors president Masai Ujirii decided to get rid of franchise stalwart DeMar DeRozan for Leonard in the summer, there was no way he could have anticipated the significance of the move.
Having gone down 2-0 in the series, Leonard knew the Raptors had to adapt their game if they had a chance at winning four straight games to complete an unlikely comeback. The Bucks excelled this season when playing at a fast pace, as well as basing their gameplay on quick passing and counters. As such, Leonard ensured that the remainder of the series slowed to a crawl, neutralizing the Bucks’ blueprints for success.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who has served much of his career overseas and in the lower domestic leagues, has also been catapulted under the limelight in the wake of Leonard’s efforts. Nurse has reconcentrated the Raptors playoff game plan to focus on the half-court.
Nurse brought in a few of the Raptors’ other heavy hitters to manage center court. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet both provided great support for Leonard when called on. The duo set up long and mid range shots for their teammates while allowing Leonard to sneak into the paint and score.
Looking ahead, the Raptors will have the opportunity to silence any lingering critics of their worth on the biggest stage possible, the NBA Finals. Doing so will certainly be their greatest challenge of the season, as across the court from them, the Golden State Warriors will be huddled together, looking to add another jewel in the crown of their dynasty. While the Warriors outrank their opposition in bench depth, the Raptors have experienced multiple back-and-forth battles and have pulled off several last minute comebacks in the past few series alone. The plucky group has been hardened by these fights and will not back down easily against the might of Curry and Green.
Even without fielding Durant or DeMarcus, two essential puzzle pieces of Golden State’s slew of championship wins, the Warriors will still be able to control the court with help from Green, Curry, and Klay Thompson. Multiple x-factors point to the Raptors’ fairy tale continuing, however. The Raptors have a better overall record of 58-24, ride a way of confidence unlike any they have ever known and will begin the series with the home field advantage at the Scotiabank Arena May 30. The nation will be watching intently to see which way the age-old story of David and Goliath will play out this time.