Kawhi Leonard’s Superstar Evolution Has Another Dynasty On Its Last Legs

Kawhi Leonard became the third-youngest Finals MVP in NBA history in 2014 when the Spurs discarded the Heat en route to a 4–1 series victory. On Monday, Leonard could become just the third player to ever win Finals MVP with two different franchises. And while a potential trophy ceremony in Toronto is just five years after Leonard’s celebration in San Antonio, the two versions of Leonard are markedly different. The Kawhi of 2014 was an elite complimentary piece. This version of Kawhi is the league’s most dominant two-way force.

It’s instructive to rewatch Leonard’s performance in the 2014 Finals. The tape provides a rough sketch for the Kawhi we watched in the Raptors runaway win on Friday night. If 2014 was the sketch, Game 4 was the finished product. Leonard turned in a masterpiece, ending the night with 34 points and 14 rebounds, including two crucial “eff-you threes” and a sensational third quarter that should live on in Finals lore. Yet Leonard’s dominant Game 4 represents not a transformation, but an evolution.

Leonard’s killer instinct began to appear in the 2014 Finals, most notably a 29-point performance in Game 3. The Heat swiped Game 2 in San Antonio behind a 35-point effort from James, returning to their home arena with the chance to seize a 3–1 lead. Instead, Leonard hit 10 of 13 shots in a Spurs blowout, leading San Antonio in scoring in each of the series’ final three games. The similarities between 2014 and 2019 are in plain sight. Two super-teams dethroned as their depth whittles, bested by veteran cores shining in an unexpected run. Leonard has the opportunity to complete the cycle on Monday night. We’ll have to see if the Warriors can avoid a blowout on the road like LeBron and the Heat.

We see plenty of similarities between the two Leonard’s, yet Toronto would be nowhere near the Finals in 2019 had they received the Kawhi of five years prior. Leonard has been the focal point of Toronto’s offense throughout the postseason, seizing playmaking duties without hesitation. But Leonard isn’t a one-man band tethered to a stream of isolations. He’s a willing and growing passer, zipping passes to the perimeter as Golden State’s defense collapses time and again.

- Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP

Leonard had the Warriors shook in Game 4. The usually disciplined unit helped onto Leonard with reckless abandon on Friday as a halftime lead morphed into a third quarter blowout. Leonard’s pair of threes to kick off the second half spurred an overreaction from Golden State, who routinely drew extra defenders onto Leonard. Danny Green earned a pair of wide open third quarter threes off Leonard burrows to the rim, the type of shots that often warrant a frustrated timeout from Steve Kerr. Toronto’s 37-21 third-quarter run sent Oracle Arena into a sea of nervous whispers, at least until O Canada boomed through the lower bowl postgame.  

We should applaud Kawhi’s growth as a playmaker. Kawhi has largely avoided his mano-a-mano tendencies this postseason, working to play within Nick Nurse’s flowing offense, not as an entity outside of it. The same friction loomed over Kevin Durant and the Warriors in 2016-17, and to some, that friction remains in place today. Durant has largely overcome the initial integration issues, as has Leonard, to startling success. Yet the playmaking evolution pales in comparison to Leonard’s now-elite scoring chops.

Kawhi is on a downright historic tear this postseason. He is one of just three players in league history to average 30 points and nine rebounds per game in the postseason, joining LeBron and Hakeem Olajuwon. Leonard enters Friday night with 52 made threes; Olajuwon made just two in his 1995 run. Leonard’s efficiency in the Finals has truly been robotic, with a 40% rate from three, 45.2% from the field and 93.8% from the line. He’s been Curry-esque through four games.

Leonard frankly seems undeterred by the defenders in his path. Kevon Looney was nearly knocked out of the series after a collision with Leonard; even Draymond Green staggered back after connecting with Leonard in Game 3. No switch can completely shut down Leonard, and the Durant injury continues to loom large on the defensive end. Leonard decimated Milwaukee in the pick-and-roll in final four games of the conference finals, yet Nurse hasn’t hunted Golden State’s guards for much of the series. Toronto attacked Cousins at will in Oakland. Curry hasn’t necessarily been given the Cavs treatment. Perhaps a steady pick-and-roll diet simplifies Golden State’s assignments. Maybe Nurse hopes to keep his machine humming as an equal opportunity attack. Regardless, it’s hard to argue with the results.

It’s unfair to bury Golden State as we enter Game 5. Rudy Tomjanovich’s famous phrase has rung true throughout league history, and a 3–1 hole is far from foreign to Curry, Klay and the rest of the Warriors’ core. Yet Monday’s matchup seems to be hurtling toward a coronation. The end of dynasties is often quicker than we think, whether it be LeBron losing to Leonard in 2014 or the Lakers’ limping to the finish against the Pistons in 2004. Magic Johnson won just one game in his last Finals. Curry may very well have another Finals opportunity, though the parallels are in place. Even discarding historical precedent, Leonard and the Raptors look like a team on a mission, stalking through the tunnel after Game 4 without an ounce of satisfaction. Kawhi emerged as a household name when he hoisted the Finals MVP trophy in 2014. A win on Monday night will solidify his standing among the greatest players of his era.


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