Dave Feschuk: Kawhi vs. LeBron could shed light on what the Raptors really need

Even in this strangest of sports years, it happens fast: You go from the thick of the post-season drama to the thin gruel of off-season what-ifs.

In honour of that jarring transition in Raptorland, in the aftermath of Friday’s Game 7 loss to the Celtics, here’s a barroom hypothetical for the Toronto hoops fan in your life. To wit: Now that the championship defence is finished, who’s still worth rooting for in the run to the Bubble O’Brien?

If you’re Canadian, surely it’s Kitchener’s magnificent Jamal Murray, whose Denver Nuggets, down 3-2 in their second-round series against the L.A. Clippers heading into Sunday’s Game 6, are still clinging to a sliver of hope against a superior opponent.

But if you’re a lover of the Raptors, there’s also a more unlikely ally. You might remember him from playoffs past. Goes by the name of King James. Spent a handful of dismal springs single-handedly morphing Toronto into LeBronto.

And based on the current odds, he’s the only player on the planet with the power to halt an eventuality that could turn the legacy of an unprecedented Raptors era into something marginally less special.

Because let’s face it: Nobody connected to Toronto’s NBA team, if they’re being truthful, is particularly itching to see Kawhi Leonard, in the year after he led Canada’s NBA franchise to its only ring, claim yet another title with yet another franchise. It’s simple human nature. Everyone would like to believe their first time is special. If Leonard wins his third career title with a third different team — if he can deliver even the previously hapless L.A. Clippers to glory in the midst of a global pandemic — suddenly the Raptors’ singular moment of triumph can be reduced to yet another in a line of Leonard’s expanding collection of conquests. Suddenly, seen from afar, Toronto is just another temporary stage on Leonard’s remarkable tour of world domination.

Even worse, suddenly LeBron, the ultimate Raptor killer, is just another notch in Leonard’s belt. The Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan Raptors could never beat King James in three straight tries, the last of which led team president Masai Ujiri to ship off the beloved DeRozan to San Antonio in exchange for precisely one load-managed season of Leonard’s magic. But Leonard, who won a Finals MVP in 2014 while ending James’s hopes of a three-peat with the Big Three Miami Heat, would be able to say he’s had the better of James twice.

Which is only to say, if it turns out to be Clippers-Lakers in the presumptive Western Conference final, there are good reasons why the Lakers might attract significant Toronto-based support that goes beyond ex-Raptor Danny Green’s status as a well-respected member of the 2019 champs. At least, that’s one way of looking at it.

It’s a just a barroom hypothetical, after all. There’ll be those, forever appreciative of Leonard’s gigantic contribution to Toronto’s sporting landscape, who’ll no doubt wish only the best for the self-proclaimed Fun Guy. Build the man a statue for The Shot. And fair enough.

There’s no denying Leonard was the best player on that magical Raptors team of 2019. The issue, in the cold light of the day after a Game 7 loss, is that at least a few Raptors fared shockingly better with Leonard as the indisputable focus of opposing defences than they did facing the Celtics. (Certainly Pascal Siakam, who prospered as a Leonard wingman but fell flat when thrust into a No. 1 role, is the most obvious case in point.)

There’s also no denying that, in the event Leonard had bought Ujiri’s summertime pitch and stayed in Toronto for another run at the trophy, the Raptors would have been the overwhelming favourites to repeat as champions. Alas, as it was, after a hijinx-laden free-agency period that eventually saw the NBA launch an investigation into potential cap circumvention after the richest owner in North American sports somehow convinced Leonard to come to L.A. — the investigation, like O.J. Simpson’s search for the real killers, is undoubtedly ongoing and exhaustive — it’s hard to imagine even James’s Lakers would have posed a credible threat to deny them.

Still, the story of the Raptors over these past handful of remarkable seasons has been more than clear: It’s been the story of Ujiri’s quest to take his franchise from very good to great. And the recipe isn’t exactly a secret. The various editions of the Lowry-DeRozan Raptors were often very good. Ditto this year’s edition of the squad. Still, there was fitting symbolism in where this season’s journey ended. It ended at the point where, about 16 months ago, Leonard delivered the greatest shot in franchise history — at the buzzer of a second-round Game 7. For all Nick Nurse’s undeniable wizardry, even the sharpest coaching minds will tell you that, ideally in the NBA, the best play amounts to throwing the ball to your best player. Both teams awaiting the commencement of the Eastern final have at least one guy they trust to deliver in such a situation. The Celtics have 22-year-old Jayson Tatum, whose 29 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists Friday made him the youngest player since Kobe Bryant to record a 25-plus-point, 10-plus-rebound, five-plus-assist performance in a Game 7. The Miami Heat have Jimmy Butler.

The Raptors, meanwhile, have assembled the world’s greatest supporting cast currently awaiting the arrival of a reasonable facsimile of such a star. Speaking of the thin gruel of off-season what-ifs: Maybe it means something that Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s defensive player of the year and presumptive two-time MVP, spent part of the weekend unfollowing his Milwaukee Bucks teammates, not to mention the team account, on Instagram, a gesture that will only fuel speculation he’s unhappy with the state of his world. The Greek Freak doesn’t become a free agent until the summer of 2021. But if he signals his intention to exit Wisconsin, it’d be in the Bucks’ best interest to move him for the best possible return in the here and now.

Certainly his cosy and long-time relationship with Ujiri can be seen as a plus from Toronto’s perspective. Which is not to say he’d be the tailor-made answer to Toronto’s problem. As late-clock shot-creators go, after all, the Freak’s no Fun Guy.

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In taking the Raptors from very good to great, it was the injection of Leonard that made the ultimate difference. Exactly how big a difference, of course, is the part we’re still nitpicking. And the calculation won’t be complete until we see precisely how good Leonard can look playing alongside a pressure-averse Paul George on a Clippers team whose third-best player might be ex-Raptor Lou Williams.

So goes the barroom hypothetical. Nothing can take away Toronto’s 2019 NBA championship, even if Friday’s Game 7 loss to the Celtics took leave of the hope of a long-odds repeat. That championship banner will hang forever. But make no mistake: The stories we tell about it will change in the weeks and years to come. And nothing will change the narrative more than Leonard’s impending success, or lack thereof, and the way the Raptors navigate the starless darkness ahead.

Dave Feschuk

TORONTO STAR