Fun Guy. Board Man.
Kawhi Leonard’s stoic personality has been milked by basketball fans and marketers alike, earning him nicknames that have been plastered on internet memes and used in successful ad campaigns.
On the court, Leonard’s stone-faced demeanour is no joke for Toronto Raptors opponents. The superstar forward’s robotic win-at-all-costs attitude has spread throughout the team like a virus.
There are no smiles and no cheering (and no fist-bumps, as Norman Powell found out) until the job is done. Before and after each game in the NBA Finals, the Raptors can be seen entering and leaving the arena without a word as they close in on winning the franchise’s first ever championship.
“I think it’s just we’re focused,” Leonard said on Sunday, a day before the Raptors took a 3-1 lead into Game 5 of the NBA Finals against visiting Golden State. “We know that it doesn’t mean anything until someone has four wins.
“You never know what could happen and you got to take advantage of it and don’t get overly hyped and excited. Still a great basketball team on the other side.”
When the Raptors pulled off a blockbuster trade to bring Leonard to Toronto, they were acquiring more than one of the best players in the game on both sides of the ball. They were getting a proven playoff competitor, someone who rises to the occasion rather than shrinks at adversity as past Raptors teams had done.
Leonard’s even-keel approach has been vital to the Raptors this postseason. Times the old Raptors might have shrivelled up – losing a big Game 3 against Philadelphia, going down 2-0 to the regular-season champion Milwaukee Bucks, giving Game 2 away against the two-time defending champion Warriors – they have instead stepped up and delivered a critical counterpunch.
“He’s a real professional. I’ve stated this before: When I speak in the meetings and when I speak in a film session or when I speak in a huddle, he’s always looking at me and a lot of times he’s nodding his head,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “I’ve always said for a rookie head coach, that makes you feel okay, when a guy like him is actually looking and sometimes agreeing with what you’re saying.”
Leonard isn’t the only battle-tested playoff performer the Raptors acquired for their run. Guard Danny Green came over from San Antonio in the trade that sent fan favourite DeMar DeRozan to Texas. Centre Marc Gasol was acquired at the trade deadline. Along with point guard Kyle Lowry – still the heart and soul of the team – the Raptors have leadership to spare.
“Kawhi certainly sets that tone, but so does Kyle, so does Marc, so does Danny – those four guys,” Nurse said. “And then I think the younger guys take the cue from them.
“I think they like playing together. I think they know there’s work to be done. I just think they just know there’s not a whole lot of energy to spend on celebrating before time. Let’s hope we understand that.”