By Ed Klajman
Special to S.F. Examiner
TORONTO – Masai Uijri accpeted the Eastern Conference trophy on behalf of the Toronto Raptors on Saturday night, but the team president didn’t just grin and shake hands.
After Toronto beat the Milwaukee Bucks 100-94 to clinch the Eastern Conference Finals, Uijri sent a message to the Golden State Warriors: He proclaimed that the reason Toronto is poised to win the NBA title – and dethrone the two-time defending champions – is because Toronto has the league’s best player: Not Kevin Durant, not Stephen Curry, but Kawhi Leonard.
Uijri told Leonard as much when he traded for him last summer.
“I don’t want to be the best player,” Leonard said. “I just want to be on the best team. [The trade] turned out well. But we’re not done yet.”
In Game 6 against the Bucks, Leonard poured in 27 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and added seven assists in leading the Raptors to their first NBA Finals appearance since joining the league a quarter century ago. That’s just one of several storylines headed into Thursday’s Game 1, when the Warriors will head up to Toronto.
After a tumultuous final year with the San Antonio Spurs, missing almost an entire season due to injury and finally winding up with the Raptors, Leonard has made Toronto a deep and true threat to Golden State’s dynasty.
“I’ve just known myself what’s right for me,” Leonard said. “I ended up coming here with a great group of guys, a lot of talent. I’ve bought into their system. All that hard work we put together and now we’re here. It’s exciting.”
Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who had 17 points and eight assists for Toronto in Game 6 – while also taking a couple of key charges and scrambling for key loose balls as he has done all playoffs long – said there’s one trait that sets Leonard apart.
“He literally stays level-headed all the time,” said Lowry, noting how it was Leonard’s demeanor that gave the team the belief they could rally from losing the first two games in Milwaukee to win four straight, when the Bucks had only lost back-to-back games once all season long. “He never gets up, he never gets down. He brought that championship pedigree here.”
“They’re not an up-and-coming team,” Kevin Durant said after the December loss. “They’re here.”
Leonard is joined on this edition of the Raptors by two other Western Conference veterans in Danny Green and Marc Gasol. With their knowledge of the Warriors, they should play a key role in the coming days as the Raptors shift their attention from celebrating an upset of the Bucks to taking down the Warriors.
The same goes for Patrick McCaw, although he has more intimate knowledge of Golden State than anyone on the roster. McCaw was a part of the last two Warriors teams that defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, coming back from a frightening back injury to play minutes in last year’s NBA playoffs against the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers. The 23-year old failed to sign a $1.64 million qualifying offer with Golden State before training camp began. The Warriors later presented him with a two-year, $5.2 million offer on Oct. 1, which he declined.
At one point optimistic about re-signing the 6-foot-7 shooting guard, Golden State moved on and has found great success with bench wing Alfonzo McKinnie, himself a former Raptor, who played 14 games for Toronto on a two-way contract.
When asked about Golden State, Gasol, who was brought over at the trade deadline, was coy about what he would share with his teammates, but did make it clear there his team really believes they can win, and that the priority right now is rest.
“For the first time in 10 days to two weeks, we get a couple of hours off, and I think it’s good to reset the brain and recover and get ready for that next challenge,” he said. “After a tough series against Philly, we ran into Milwaukee and played every other day. We’ll look at Golden State tomorrow when we wake up.”
As for Green, who has known Leonard as a teammate for a long time, having spent several years together with the San Antonio Spurs, he is not going to disagree with Ujiri’s assessment of Leonard.
“When the lights are brightest, his game rises,” said Green, who was the one Raptor starter to struggle in the series. “When he knows how important it is, he makes the big plays. And some of his biggest shots have been rebounds.”
Like Gasol, he doesn’t want to think too hard about the challenge of Golden State until after he gets a good night of sleep.
“We’ll focus on them in another day. Tonight we’re going to enjoy this one, and then figure it out from there. They’re a tough team. Obviously they are champions. We have a big test ahead of us. We’ll circle back into the film room later and figure it out.”
NBA Finals Schedule
Game 1: Thur, May 30, Golden State at Toronto | 9 ET (ABC)
Game 2: Sun, June 2, Golden State at Toronto | 8 ET (ABC)
Game 3: Wed, June 5, Toronto at Golden State | 9 ET (ABC)
Game 4: Fri, June 7, Toronto at Golden State | 9 ET (ABC)
*Game 5: Mon, June 10, Golden State at Toronto | 9 ET (ABC)
*Game 6: Thur, June 13, Toronto at Golden State | 9 ET (ABC)
*Game 7: Sun, June 16, Golden State at Toronto | 8 ET (ABC)
* – If Necessary
Sports Editor Ryan Gorcey contributed to this report.