By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) – The Toronto Raptors’ gamble to acquire Kawhi Leonard has paid off in the form of maiden trip to the NBA Finals but now comes perhaps the hardest part, knocking off the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
The trade for Leonard last July was an emotional one as the Raptors had to part with DeMar DeRozan, one of the team’s most popular players of all-time, to acquire the two-times defensive player of the year from San Antonio.
While Leonard is one of the game’s best players, he arrived in Toronto after an injury-hit season and with one year remaining on his contract, meaning the former NBA Finals Most Valuable Player could leave as a free agent this off-season.
“The change was hard at the time, but we knew the kind of player we were getting, and if we overcame and we dealt with all the issues that we felt that could come together,” Raptors president told reporters at NBA Finals Media Day on Wednesday.
“I think we were all positive about this kind of moment and all dreamt about it.”
Leonard has since carried Toronto to the Finals and along the way delivered the signature moment in Raptors history with a buzzer-beating shot that bounced off the rim four times before dropping in to send his team the Eastern Conference final.
The Raptors went on to beat the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and on Thursday begin their quest to become the first team since the 2006 Miami Heat to win the NBA Finals in their first appearance in the championship round.
Toronto will host the first two games of the best-of-seven Finals and the team’s hopes of toppling the juggernaut Warriors will fall squarely on the shoulders of Leonard, who is perhaps the league’s best two-way player.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was not at a loss for words when asked to describe what makes Leonard elite, citing his pride in being a two-way player, drive, IQ, athleticism and an uncanny ability to cause turnovers with his large hands.
“What probably impresses me about him more than anything is when he — 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,” Nurse said.
“Those are huge momentum plays.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)