TORONTO (AP) — Last time Kawhi Leonard played Golden State in the playoffs, he was running the Warriors off the floor.
The only thing that stopped him that day was Zaza Pachulia’s foot, which Leonard landed on after taking a jumper in the third quarter of Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals. Before he left soon after that play with an ankle injury, he scored 26 points and San Antonio led by 23 on Golden State’s home floor.
“He was having a great game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr recalled. “The Spurs were kicking our butts.”
Leonard might even be a better player now.
And he might be on a better team. One that could be the very best in the NBA.
The Toronto Raptors are tough, battle-tested, and way more complete than the Cleveland team that cakewalked through a weak Eastern Conference the last couple years and was ultimately no match for Golden State.
“Yeah, they have a very good team, and they’re here for a reason,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “So you can’t take them lightly just because they haven’t been here before. They have our respect and we’ll come correct” on Thursday.
The Raptors are new to the NBA Finals, but their roster is loaded with veteran guys who understand how to play. Like Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP who has been perhaps the best player in this postseason.
Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Danny Green have all played in plenty of big games, and won’t be intimidated by the defending champions or the bright lights. They have high basketball IQs and defensive mindsets — Leonard and Gasol have been Defensive Players of the Year.
That helped them fight out of a 2-0 hole to win four straight against Milwaukee, which had the best record in the NBA, in the last round. Coach Nick Nurse said there were times in that series when the Raptors may have been in the wrong coverage, but the players on the floor would talk among themselves and figure it out.
“I think against this team, I think against most teams in the NBA, you have to play that way, especially this time of year,” Nurse said.
With Leonard, Gasol, Pascal Siakam and Ibaka, the Raptors have length in the frontcourt that can make it tough for anyone — even MVP finalist Giannis Antetokounmpo — to get good looks around the rim. It will be even tougher for Golden State if the injured Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins remain out of the lineup much longer.
The Warriors didn’t need them in the last round, but Toronto is a different challenge. Leonard is scoring better than 30 points per game and playing shutdown defense, Lowry is throwing his body all over the floor, and Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell are coming off the bench to deliver clutch shooting.
The Raptors had the best record in the East last season but shook things up after getting swept by Cleveland in the second round, firing coach Dwane Casey and trading All-Star DeMar DeRozan in the deal for Leonard, who can be a free agent in a month. They were aggressive moves which might have been too risky for some teams, but the kind that can turn a team that couldn’t beat the Cavaliers into one that can topple the Warriors.
“That’s why we play the game is to win,” Raptors President Masai Ujiri said, “and that’s what we want to do here, is to win.”
Raptors in seven.