The Toronto Raptors live with ghosts. When Kawhi Leonard bounced home a jumper at the Game 7 buzzer to beat the Sixers in the second round, it evoked a similar shot that Vince Carter had taken—and missed—in the same situation back in 2001. When Toronto dropped the first game of its opening playoff series this year at home to Orlando, the loss fit into a strange, time-honored tradition. The Raptors had played in 16 playoff series and found a way to lose Game 1 on 14 occasions. To everything Toronto does, there is a disappointment in eerie parallel.
Without that history, Leonard may never have been a Raptor. Teams at peace don't trade the most beloved player in franchise history—least of all for an impending free agent. Toronto came to the decision to part with DeMar DeRozan last July after wrestling, for years, with the futility of their roster. Leonard was a way out. It was his dominance throughout these playoffs that put spirits to rest, taking teammates to places they had never been before—namely, the NBA Finals. Even if Leonard skips town next month and never looks back, he'll be remembered as the player who saved the franchise from its own past.
This is the gift of Kawhi. A run like this—three series wins and a 3–2 Finals lead—not only changes the way a team is seen, but the way its players see themselves. Toronto now operates with an appreciable calm. Where another defense might fret, the Raptors keep steadfast in their rotations. When the moment grows heavy, this group continues to run its offense in pursuit of the best possible option. All of this is very much in character for a team that takes its cues from Leonard. "His demeanor has kind of taken a big part of our team," Kyle Lowry says. "And we have some guys that are fiery and feisty, but we all kind of just stay level-headed and never get too up, never get too down."
Leonard may be largely inscrutable, but in some arenas his stoicism is a virtue. "It never seems like he's in a hurry," says Raptors forward Pascal Siakam. And if Leonard isn't feeling rushed, why should any of his teammates? Now we see so many of the Raptors as they truly are, their psychic weight lifted. It has never been easier to appreciate Lowry's complete game—the angles he creates with a bump, the turnovers he forces by reading ahead—than when he was relieved of the burden of being a volume scorer. Not a year ago Gregg Popovich seemed to lose patience with Danny Green. Now Green helps to wear down Stephen Curry and punishes the Warriors for their defensive miscues.
The furthest Marc Gasol had ever advanced in the playoffs was the 2013 West finals, when his Grizzlies were swept unceremoniously. Playing in Toronto allowed him his first real chance to steady a championship club—to help talented teammates think their way through possessions at the highest possible level. His co-center, Serge Ibaka, looked to be out of his depth in the '18 playoffs. It turned out that all he needed was a slight change in role and the benefit of stability around him. Siakam, once defined by his flaws, now plays fearlessly.
Within these Finals lies indelible, incontrovertible proof of the Raptors as winners, no matter the actual championship result. It takes an all-powerful belief to advance this deep into the playoffs—to seize Game 7 against the Sixers; to knock out the Bucks, who had been the most dominant team of the regular season; and to wallop the Warriors three times before they had the opportunity to get healthy. The Raptors saw themselves as championship-level players, and are clearly so. Even if Leonard were to strike a deal with the Clippers at the first opportunity, none of that would change. What he leaves behind is the kind of glimmering validation that no one can ever take away.
Any team's first trip to the NBA Finals is an act of personal revelation. We already knew who the Warriors were: a clever team that had long understood how to make use of its incredible—if unconventional—talent. There's only so much mystery as to what piece goes where when you've already seen the puzzle completed. These playoffs, however, have shown the Raptors in a new light. This was a group of players who eyed the title from the very start, and along the way, convinced themselves it was theirs. "Obviously, as human beings, we do think in the future," Leonard says. "Been thinking in the future since the beginning of the season, just trying to get to this point. You just got to stay current and stay in your routine, be patient and not rush anything."
Toronto never did. While Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden dueled for MVP honors, Leonard managed his season—playing just 60 games—to save his legs. The Raptors waited until the trade deadline to deal Jonas Valanciunas get the help they needed, and were rewarded by landing Gasol. This was a long game—months for some, years for others, and decades for the Raptors as a franchise. Now the clock stops, and the hold of the past with it.