A billboard strategically placed near Oracle Arena had warned the Warriors what was coming.
It was a clever New Balance ad that went up ahead of Games 3 and 4 of a stone-faced Kawhi Leonard, arms crossed, alongside the slogan “The King of the North is Coming.”
He more than lived up to the promise.
The superstar, lovingly dubbed the “KOTN” by the mushrooming number of Raptors fans, led Toronto to two wins against the two-time defending champs on their home floor with the chilling demeanour of an assassin.
Then the Raptors flew home Saturday leaving a trail of destruction in the Bay Area.
Now the Raptors can capture their first NBA title in the team’s 24-year franchise history and bring the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Canada for the first time with a victory at home on Monday. Leonard will have orchestrated the stunning end of Golden State’s dynasty. He would be named Finals MVP for his efforts.
“It’s not over yet,” Leonard said after Friday’s 105-92 victory. “It doesn’t matter until you get that fourth win.”
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The 27-year-old, who earned MVP honours in the 2014 Finals with San Antonio, is averaging 30.8 points and 10.3 rebounds in the Finals, and 31.1 points and 9.1 boards over the four playoff rounds.
Leonard’s 36 points on Friday marked his 14th game of the post-season with 30-plus points. The only other players to reach 14 were Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Hakeem Olajuwon and Allen Iverson.
Jordan and Olajuwon are tied for the most 30-point games with 16.
The statistics are on the Raptors’ side. Teams that take a 3-1 lead in the Finals have a 33-1 series record — 97.1 per cent. The only time a team with a 3-1 record did not win the Finals was 2016, when Cleveland rallied to beat Golden State.
Friday’s win was a snapshot of Leonard’s might. Trailing for most of the first half, he knocked down a pair of three-pointers to start the third quarter before many fans were back in their seats from the break. Nothing special was said at halftime. Leonard would say later that “I had faith it was going to turn around.”
“Kawhi Leonard came out and hit two big eff-you shots to start the half,” Fred VanVleet said. “There’s no defence for that. There’s no schemes for that. That’s two big-boy shots.”
Nurse is never surprised when Leonard’s big shots fall.
“He’s a really, really good shooter,” the coach said. ”When he vaults up from three with space, you’re pretty surprised when it doesn’t go in because he’s got great mechanics, he’s usually got it on line.”
With his monotone demeanour, Leonard has been portrayed as sub-human in these playoffs. A video of him leaving Norm Powell hanging with an outstretched fist for a knuckle bump had Raptors fans roaring. Cue the cyborg comparisons.
Before Game 4, Warriors star Draymond Green had been asked how one rattles Leonard?
Green prompted laughter when he said “rattle” isn’t a word in the Warriors’ scouting report of Leonard.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to rattle Kawhi,” Green said.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri took a huge risk when he traded away DeMar DeRozan for Leonard after he’d played just nine games in San Antonio last season because of a quadriceps injury. His split with the Spurs was messy, he wasn’t with the team during the post-season.
Leonard was questioned earlier this week if any lingering backlash from last season would affect his legacy.
“I’ve never been one of those guys that growing up in high school getting all the media and the college media, so I don’t really think my legacy is going to ever reach the potentials of Michael Jordan and how the media followed them since they were a rookie,” Leonard said.
“I just want to play and just let people remember that I played hard at both ends of the floor, I was a winner, and that’s basically it. I’m just here enjoying my dream, having fun.”
There’s been a groundswell of support for the Raptors in the past few weeks as their historic run is celebrated coast to coast. Hundreds of Raptors fans were at Oracle Arena on Friday night, serenading the players with an impromptu singing of “O Canada” as they walked off the court. Across the country, fans attended viewing parties. Jurassic Park was nuts.
“It’s awesome,” Nurse said. ”Our fans travel really well in the regular season. We get this a lot on the road. It’s really amazing. It’s Canada’s team, and Canadians from all over the country are travelling down and making plans when we play in Florida or California or Detroit especially. You ought to see a Detroit game. It’s really something in there.
“Surprises me a little in The Finals because I don’t think it’s that easy to get tickets to these games, so our fans are working extra hard and being extra vocal, and we appreciate that.”
Leonard, who’s lived in Canada for all of 10 months, was asked the impact an NBA championship will have north of the border. He answered in typical deadpan fashion.
“I guess you really would have to ask somebody on the street or one of our fans. I’m pretty sure it’s a long time waiting,” Leonard said. ”They’re going to be excited. They’re already excited just as us just being here for the first time. They’re going crazy after the Eastern Conference Finals and — I don’t know, there’s no telling.
Indeed we likely will.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press