The Toronto Raptors are one of the best teams in the east, and that's thanks to Kawhi Leonard.
The NBA has changed. And it’s done so within a year’s span. Something happened when LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to play in Los Angeles with the Lake Show, and whether you want to admit it or not, it may just have been for the betterment of the league.
OK yea, sure, the Golden State Warriors are still the defending champions and despite a few hiccups and possible chinks in their armor, they are still as dominant and great of a basketball team as in previous years, and it is still a league that is built around teams trying to usurp the Bay Area boys from their reign and throne. Yet, there’s also something that is not quite the same – this year, sports fans and basketball enthusiasts, are guaranteed to get a new NBA Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers have one of the worst records in the league this season and they show no signs of improving significantly enough to make the playoffs this year. So, there will be a new Eastern Conference champion for the first time in a long time — eight years to be exact. One of the serious contenders to become the Eastern Conference Champion is no other than the Toronto Raptors who are emerging right now as a force in the NBA, and this is behind their new star player, Kawhi Leonard, whom they acquired through a trade from the San Antonio Spurs.
So far, the Raptors have been tough — they are strong on both sides of the ball and they are getting production from their entire team. Kawhi Leonard has seamlessly stepped into the forefront and the Raptors’ team has responded. While Leonard is obviously the focal point of the offense (he is also a strong defender), there hasn’t been a burdensome transition from DeRozan to him, the kind where the mantle of “whose” team it is, is forced upon one person. The Toronto Raptors are a team, and that team structure has helped in bringing Leonard along and ingratiating him to teammates and coaching staff, and the results are evident in their winning and how Leonard is playing.
At the end of the day, the Raptors know what kind of player they have in Leonard. Coming into Tuesday Night’s game against Utah, the Raptors’ new franchise player was averaging 27.3 points per game along with 8.2 rebounds, all career highs. And Kawhi Leonard’s repertoire was on full display against the Utah Jazz as the star small forward for the Toronto Raptors exploded for a career-high of 45 points.
Everyone a few months back, before the 2018-2019 NBA season began, wondered and even speculated on just how Leonard would fit with Toronto having been such an integral part of the San Antonio Spurs’ success as a team in the past and suddenly becoming disenfranchised with the team, so much so that he demanded a trade. And so, the bounding Toronto Raptors, who were steadily getting better and were already becoming a formidable contender in the Eastern Conference, traded away their star player, DeMar DeRozan, for another star, Leonard, on the hunch that he was the guy to eventually lead the Raptors into the promised land — the NBA Finals. And so far, so good.
The Toronto Raptors are second in the Eastern Conference with a record of 28-11, only a half of a game behind the Milwaukee Bucks. And Kawhi Leonard is a significant part of the team’s early success. While Leonard’s play since being in Toronto has been solid, teammates have been anticipating a night like the one against Utah.
Leonard was surgical in his outing against the Jazz. He shot 16-22, scoring in a variety of ways — mid-range to weaving through defenders for silky smooth finishes. In addition to the 45-point outburst, the superstar forward added 10 rebounds to the stat sheet.
According to the Charlotte Observer, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse had this to say about Kawhi Leonard’s performance: “He was phenomenal. I’ve been kind of waiting for one of these nights where he makes them all.”
And boy did he. Kawhi is known for his quiet demeanor, but if this game is any indicator of what’s to come from him for the Toronto Raptors as the season progresses, his contention for MVP will undoubtedly be heard loud and clear. But more than what would be a remarkable individual achievement for Leonard, is the potential for him to lead the Raptors to their first ever NBA Finals appearance as the Eastern Conference Champions, a reality that is definitely possible given where matters stand now, and reasonable if both Leonard and the Toronto Raptors continue to play like this.