After coping with the trauma of his father’s murder as a 16-year-old, Kawhi Leonard has no difficulty putting basketball in its proper perspective.
On Thursday, the Toronto Raptors star will try to lead the Canadian franchise to their first NBA Finals crown, and the first for any team from outside the United States, with victory in game six at Golden State.
Leonard’s 31.1 points a game in the playoffs have sparked the Raptors to a 3-2 edge in the best-of-seven series but they hope to finish the Warriors without needing a game seven on Sunday in Toronto.
Leonard’s trademark calm demeanor on the court has carried over onto the team, helping them handle pressure situations and not get too excited even standing on the brink of the NBA title.
It’s something Leonard has had since his father, Mark Leonard, was shot dead in 2008 at the car wash he owned in Compton, a Los Angeles suburb, in a crime that has never been solved.
“Once it happened, I thought about it a lot. But as I got older, I pretty much just really stopped thinking about it,” Leonard said Wednesday.
“It just gave me a sense and feel that life and basketball are two different things and just really enjoy your time and moments. This is basketball. Just go out there and have fun. These are going to be the best years of my life, playing this game.
“Being this young, you shouldn’t be stressing in life about things that really don’t matter. As long as your family is healthy, you’re able to see the people you love and you’re able to walk, run. Go out here, lay it all out on the floor, do the best job I could possibly do and try to win.”
His mindset is on the challenge of each play as it comes, each game as it’s played.
“To really say, ‘Oh I feel so much pressure.’ You really don’t. Once your adrenaline is going, it’s a lot different watching the game because your mindset is totally different. You’re within that moment and you’re embracing it and enjoying what’s going to happen next.”
He’s enjoyed a lot over his career, an NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award in 2014 with San Antonio and NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors the next two seasons.
The Raptors have enjoyed it all with him this season after his trade deal from San Antonio last July.
“He’s been able to show his full repertoire this whole season. The playoffs has made it even more of a bigger stage,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said.
“I think he’s the best two-way basketball player in the NBA. He just goes. I’ve seen some stuff from him this year that just you say, ‘Wow.’ You appreciate the work that’s put in. He works extremely hard at his game and his body. And he loves this basketball thing.”
Raptors coach Nick Nurse sees Leonard’s toughness coming from hard times in his youth.
“Probably not basketball-related things, probably the way he was raised or the environment he grew up in,” Nurse said. “He’s certainly tough, strong and composed.”
Kawhi’s a ‘gamer’
Rivals have an appreciation for his talent, notably Golden State star guard Stephen Curry.
“He’s a gamer,” Curry said of Leonard. “He just makes winning plays. He’s shown offensively how dynamic he is. He requires attention at all times. So even a really good defense, sometimes he finds a way.
“For us, it’s just playing the long game, understanding that he might have great numbers and whatnot, but it’s just a matter of can we get the stops that matter and can we win.
“He’s just a competitor. We respect that, for sure. He’s shown that again this entire playoff run they’ve had.”
Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala sees Leonard as the rare player with the physical gifts and mental discipline to make the most of them.
“He’s a winner,” Iguodala said. “It doesn’t show up in any type of data, what a winner is. When you’re going against that, you have a different type of respect for it.”