Barber: Warriors facing a different challenge in Kawhi Leonard

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TORONTO — The best player in basketball will take the court in the NBA Finals. It won’t be Stephen Curry, the two-time MVP, or even Kevin Durant, who will not play in Game 1 but may see action later in the series. It’s Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors’ steady and understated forward.

I realize that I may have to go underground in the Bay Area for a couple weeks after uttering this blasphemy, but I am convinced that when you consider all facets of the game, Leonard is the current gold standard. He can’t score as effortlessly as Durant or as creatively as Curry or as scarily as LeBron James. But none of those guys can play defense like Kawhi Leonard. And if you think Giannis Antetokounmpo is the NBA’s best player, well, you need to watch tape of the Eastern Conference finals, in which the Bucks’ young superstar was thoroughly outplayed by Toronto’s Mr. Boring.

The Kawhi-is-best argument is not an outlier among the NBA intelligentsia. Coaches love his game. Scouts love his game. Other players love his game. On ESPN on Tuesday, Clippers coach Doc Rivers called Leonard “the most like (Michael) Jordan that we’ve seen.”

So why doesn’t Leonard’s name have the same currency as Curry’s, or Durant’s, or LeBron’s, or Russell Westbrook’s or James Harden’s or even that of Antetokounmpo, who is only 24 and virtually impossible to spell?

One explanation is that Leonard’s greatness is largely defined in ways other than putting the ball in the basket. Before this season, he had a career scoring average of 16.3 points. That won’t get you nightly appearances on SportsCenter. It won’t convince 11-year-olds to yell “Kawhi!” as they launch low-percentage jumpers at recess.

“I’m not playing the game for that reason,” Leonard said Wednesday. “I’m playing to have fun and try to be the best player I can be. I’m happy with myself and what I have done in my career, and I’m just going to keep on from there. It’s not about me being famous or want to have more fame than those guys.”

Or I think that’s what he said. I feel asleep mid-answer.

Another reason for Leonard’s relative lack of celebrity is the way he came to stardom. Unlike all of the other players mentioned earlier in this column, other than Antetokounmpo, Leonard was not a top-10 draft pick. The Indiana Pacers took him at No. 15 in the 2011 draft (and immediately traded him to the Spurs), four spots after the Warriors selected Klay Thompson.

Leonard hadn’t gotten a lot of exposure at San Diego State, and he was only a part-time starter as a San Antonio rookie in 2011-12. He didn’t make an NBA All-Star team until his fifth season.

Really, though, it is Leonard’s style that allows him — forces him? — to blend in. Nothing about his game is flashy or particularly explosive (his dunk on Antetokounmpo in Game 6 of the East finals being a strong rebuttal to that claim). He simply has no true weakness, and he plays with the sort of anticipatory smarts that would fit right in with Warriors like Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.

At the NBA Finals Media Day on Wednesday, I asked Green about the challenge of preparing for Leonard. I prefaced the question by suggesting that Leonard “doesn’t really dominate at one or two things but seems to be good at just about everything on the court.”

But Green had a better way of framing it.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s not dominant, because he just dominates the game,” he said. “So I think the challenge with Kawhi is it doesn’t look the same. Like when Steph dominates a game, Kevin dominates a game, Damian Lillard dominates a game, LeBron dominates a game, it does not look the same as when Kawhi is dominating a game. So it can fool you to just say, ‘We can just guard him this way or we can do this or we don’t have to put too much focus into him.’ It doesn’t look the same. It’s not as pretty. But, boy, is it effective.”

Green added: “So where a lot of those guys that I just named are like natural God-given scorers, Kawhi isn’t that. Kawhi didn’t come into this league as a scorer, yet he’s one of the best scorers we have in the league now. It just doesn’t look the same, but the results are the same and/or better.”

Leonard’s off-court persona is as vanilla as his game. He doesn’t have Green’s volatility or LeBron’s commanding presence or Durant’s mysteriousness or Curry’s relatability. He answers questions with the impish charm of a rebound box-out.

It was at a different Media Day, Leonard’s first as a Raptor, back in September, when someone asked him to describe himself. He started by saying, “I’m a fun guy,” before continuing with an answer that wasn’t very fun. He finished by telling his inquisitor, “I don’t even know where you’re sitting at.” And then Leonard unleashed a laugh that sounded like a rusty saloon sign blowing in a dusty desert wind. Like an alien’s first attempt at imitating a human laugh.

“I knew I was going to get some Kawhi, how-is-he-off-the-court question,” Raptors forward Pascal Siakam said. “But I don’t know what to tell you guys. I think you guys are trying to see something and, I don’t know, for me I just see him as Kawhi. Like, he comes in, gets his work done and then off the court he’s just with us like everyone else. Like literally it’s normal.”

I asked Danny Green, who has played with him in both San Antonio and Toronto, if Leonard’s inner rage ever leaked to the surface.

“Not many blowups,” Green said. “But once in a blue moon. I wouldn’t say anger, either. But he’ll let it be known if you’re not doing your job, or something went wrong or something went right.”

With a calm and deliberate delivery, no doubt.

If Leonard has been considered one of the NBA’s elite players for several years, he reached a new gear in 2018-19. He was a huge question mark coming into the season, a thigh injury having limited him to just nine games with the Spurs the year before. The Raptors gambled by trading their best player, DeMar DeRozan, to get Leonard. And Toronto coach Nick Nurse worked him into the mix slowly, sitting him for six of the team’s first 19 games.

The response has been the stuff of Canada legend. Leonard averaged 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds during the regular season, both career bests, while continuing to do all the little things that separate him from the crowd. He has been better than that in the playoffs, averaging 31.2 and 8.8, and carrying the Raptors on his back for significant stretches. His four-bounce, series-winning 3-pointer against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals would get votes for the most dramatic shot in NBA history.

And now he is the Warriors’ problem.

As such, he’s a different sort of challenge than the players Golden State has faced in previous postseason series, like LeBron and Harden and Durant when he played for Oklahoma City. Those guys weren’t really stoppable, but at least you knew what you were hoping to curtail. Their primary skills were obvious.

But how do you stop someone like Kawhi Leonard, who does everything in a basketball game with bland, glorious efficiency?

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-529-5218 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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