OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Kawhi Leonard’s first season with the Toronto Raptors started with his now-infamous laugh.
It ended with him getting the last laugh.
The best player on the league’s newly crowned best team is an NBA Finals MVP for the second time. Toronto finally sits atop the basketball universe, with Leonard averaging 28.5 points in a six-game finals victory over the Golden State Warriors to lead the Raptors to their first championship.
He arguably ended any debate about who the best two-way player in the sport is at this moment.
“This is what I play basketball for,” Leonard said. “This is what I work out for.”
The King of the North, as they’ve been calling Leonard in Toronto, was King of the Playoffs. He’s the third player to win Finals MVP with two franchises, joining only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James.
“I think he’s the best two-way basketball player in the NBA,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “He just goes. You know, I’ve seen some stuff from him this year that you just say, ‘Wow.’ You do. You say, ‘Wow.’ You appreciate the work that he’s put in. He works extremely hard at his game and works extremely hard on his body. And he loves this basketball thing. Loves it.”
Perhaps never more so than Thursday night.
After missing most of last season with a leg injury, after having his commitment questioned, after getting traded to Toronto, Leonard returned to basketball’s mountaintop. He thrust both arms high into the air when it was over, letting out a scream of joy. He even allowed himself a tiny smile when he hoisted the MVP trophy.
“He’s just a competitor,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “We respect that, for sure. He’s shown that again this entire playoff run.”
Leonard scored 732 points in the playoffs. Only Michael Jordan (759) and LeBron James (748) ever scored more in a single postseason. Leonard finished with 14 games of 30 points or more in these playoffs. The only players with more in a single postseason are Jordan (16 in 1992), Hakeem Olajuwon (16 in 1995) and Kobe Bryant (15 in 2009).
“Without a doubt, the best thing about this thing is that somehow I wound up on the sideline getting to watch this guy play up close,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who won an NBA title in his first season as a head coach in the league. “It’s really cool.”
Leonard was the unquestioned leader. When the Raptors lost Game 2 of the NBA Finals at home and surrendered home-court advantage in the series, Nurse walked into a very glum locker room and reminded his team that it merely needed to win either Game 3 or Game 4 at Oracle Arena to reclaim control of the series.
Some nodded in agreement.
Leonard was not one of them, saying, “Let’s go get both.”
They got both.