Dave Feschuk: Board man gets comfortable on NBA’s biggest stage

Dave Feschuk: Board man gets comfortable on NBA’s biggest stage
OAKLAND, CALIF.—When you think about what’s made it all so compelling, this basketball journey to within a win of an NBA championship, maybe there’s something to be said about the newness of the thing.

The first time around is always special. Or at least that was a point driven home on Wednesday by Steve Kerr, coach of the Golden State Warriors, when he was asked to elaborate on his favourite memory from his years playing and coaching at Oracle Arena. The beloved Oracle, of course, is the 47-year-old concrete bowl that will host its final NBA game Thursday — Game 6, as it happens, of this Raptors-Warriors NBA Finals . Kerr played there as an NBAer and has since coached the Warriors to three championships with the place as their base. But when it came to pinpointing his greatest memory of Golden State’s ancient home floor, he went back to the moment in 2015 when the Kerr-era squad first advanced to the NBA Finals by eliminating the Houston Rockets for the Western Conference title.

“It was surreal,” Kerr said. “We weren’t sure we were good enough to do it.”

That’s the thing about the first time in a championship series: You’re just contenders until you’re popping corks. You’re never sure if you’re good enough until you’re crowned kings. And maybe that’s why, with the Raptors still up 3-2 in the series even after they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in a disappointing Game 5, it’s not difficult to have faith that Toronto’s NBAers are on the verge of experiencing their “we’re good enough” moment. Though the franchise has never been through the wild swings of a Finals before, the franchise player certainly has, and more. Kawhi Leonard is playing in his third NBA championship series and going for his second title. And at this particular moment in time, he’s not only playing better than he ever has — he’s playing better than almost anyone who’s ever played.

“A guy like Kawhi, he’s used to the moment,” Danny Green, Leonard’s longtime teammate, said Wednesday. “When you’re used to the moment, you kind of rise to the occasion. When you’re comfortable, you have fun and think these are the moments and times and positions that you dream of being in when you’re a child, a kid … But you only get used to it by being put in those situations.”

To say Leonard looks rather accustomed to these situations would be putting it mildly. Twenty-three games into these playoffs, Leonard is now one of four players in league history who’ve tallied 700 points and 200 rebounds in a single post-season. The other three are named LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon — all winners of multiple rings. That’s select company, indeed. And don’t think for a moment that Leonard’s teammates aren’t thrilled to be able to say that they’re on the same side as the guy racking up the monumental numbers.

“I’ve seen some stuff from him this year that you just say, ‘Wow,’” said Kyle Lowry, Toronto’s veteran point guard.

What’s been the biggest surprise to Lowry, who called Leonard the best two-way player in the sport?

“I didn’t know he was such a great shooter,” Lowry said. “I didn’t know he was such a great (playmaker). Early in the year, but then throughout the season, he’s become a better playmaker.”

He didn’t know, either, that Leonard could mix those skills with prodigious rebounding.

“I think it was one game, I don’t know if it was in the playoffs, it was like 30 (points) and 15 rebounds or something like that,” Lowry said. “I mean you just say, ‘God, Jesus, that’s a crazy stat line for a guy like that.’ He just does it on both ends.”

If you want to nitpick, Leonard is coming off his third-least-efficient game of the playoffs as measured by field-goal percentage, a 9-for-24 night wherein his shooting legs looked less than lively. Occasionally wayward marksmanship aside, Leonard is putting up 29.8 points and 10.8 rebounds a game for the series — the only player on either team averaging a double-double.

“Through the regular season, he’s had big games like this before, but he hasn’t played the minutes,” Lowry said. “So you give him more minutes, you give him more shots, you give him more touches, you give him more time to be on the floor. I think he’s the best two-way basketball player in the NBA.”

Indeed, Leonard has played more than 40 minutes in 10 of Toronto’s 23 post-season games. He breached the 40-minute mark just four times in 60 regular-season games.

On Wednesday, Nurse was asked the unanswerable: What makes Leonard such a cold-blooded savant? And the coach could only offer a guess.

Leonard, of course, grew up in Los Angeles under the duress of life-changing tragedy. His father, Mark Leonard, was shot and killed at the family car wash in Compton when Leonard was a teenager.

“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, speaking of his father’s death. “I think it just gave me a sense and feel that life and basketball are two different things and just really enjoy your time and moments. Like I always say, 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 27, 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 that you love and you’re able to walk, run, you’re not injured. So all those things go into account. Go out there, lay it all out on the floor, do the best job I could possibly do and try to win.”

How’s that for a fitting message on the eve of the latest edition of the Biggest Game in Raptors History. Enjoy your time and moments, indeed. The first time only comes around once.
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