Kawhi Leonard has Raptors on brink of NBA Finals with a historic postseason run


MILWAUKEE – 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.

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