The question seems to come up every time Kawhi Leonard’s team goes deep in the NBA playoffs: why doesn’t the superstar ever seem to smile?
Leonard continues to embrace his robotic image even as he’s taken the Toronto Raptors to NBA Finals for the first time.
OK, so he smiled as he was being mobbed by his teammates after his remarkable game- and series-winning shot from the corner against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals, which was the first buzzer-beater to win a Game 7. The rarity of his emotion matched the rarity of the shot, which bounced four times on the rim before dropping through the net.
It’s been back to business ever since for Leonard, who led the Raptors to four straight victories against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks to take the Eastern Conference Finals 4-2. Game 1 of the Finals against Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors is Thursday night in Toronto. It’s Leonard’s second trip to the Finals; he was the Finals MVP when San Antonio won it all in 2014.
Despite his all-business demeanor, Leonard said the Raptors are having fun as they’ve invigorated the city of Toronto.
“Experience helps a lot. Just from my input, I’ve been here before, I’ve been to the Finals and it’s pretty much nothing new that I’m seeing out there,” Leonard said after helping the Raptors rally to win Game 5. “Just got to have fun with it and enjoy it. Like I told them tonight, we were down 10, told them to enjoy the moment and embrace it. Just have fun and love it, man. This is why we’re here.”
After the Raptors clinched the series, team president Masai Ujiri said Leonard was the best player in the league.
As you might imagine, Leonard remained true to form and brushed aside the compliment. That’s his mindset.
“I just want to win. I don’t care about being the best player. I want to be the best team,” Leonard said at the post-game news conference.
A few weeks ago, Leonard wore a shirt that said, “I’m a fun guy,” a reference to his awkward introductory news conference in September, his first public comments since the blockbuster trade that brought him to Canada from San Antonio.
At that news conference, the usually media-shy Leonard was asked what he would like people to know about him. He even made himself laugh.
“I’m a fun guy,” Leonard said. “Obviously, I love the game of basketball. I mean, there’s just more questions you have to ask in order for me to tell you about myself. I just can’t give you the whole spiel. I don’t even know where you’re sitting at,” Leonard said to the reporter who had posed the question, before cracking up.
So he can show emotion. And when he does, it’s almost always memorable.
Remember in 2014 when he was named NBA Finals MVP, and his Spurs teammates practically pummeled him in joy? Well, Leonard let out a “Woooo!” and hollered before returning to his stoic self for an interview with Stuart Scott.
At the end of the interview, Scott said, “It’s OK to smile now, Kawhi.”
Leonard said, “Say that again, man?” To which Scott replied, “It’s OK to smile now.”
“Man, it’s all surreal to me right now,” Leonard responded, with a laugh and a smile.
Leonard didn’t smile a lot, either, when he played two seasons at San Diego State under Steve Fisher. Back then, he was better known for his defensive prowess and his massive hands, which allowed him lead the team in rebounding.
There were two incidents during the 2010-11 season, the greatest in school history, that fans still remember. One was good, the other not so much for a school that reached an all-time high at 34-3 that season but has still never won a game in the Sweet 16.
During the regular season, SDSU and BYU were both ranked in the Top 10 and a rivalry between Leonard and Jimmer Fredette popped up. Fredette, who back then seemed to be a bigger NBA prospect than Leonard, dominated the two regular-season matchups, both of which BYU won by double digits.
But the Aztecs caught a huge break just before the Mountain West Conference Tournament when BYU’s Brandon Davies was suspended for violating the school’s honor code. The Aztecs reached the championship game and routed BYU 72-54 to earn the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
To the great delight of Aztecs fans, who up until that year had never enjoyed a win in the Big Dance, Leonard smiled and clapped his hands as he talked smack with Fredette in the game’s final seconds.
Afterward, Leonard said he was just telling Fredette he had played. But c’mon, the rare smile on Leonard’s face suggested otherwise.
“You know, he just said some things.” Fredette told the media afterward. “I’m not going to repeat anything that he said. But he was excited that they won. He decided to say some things. I’m not going to back down. I said a couple of things as well, then we were done. We went forward.”
So did the Aztecs, winning for the first time ever in the NCAA Tournament with victories over Northern Colorado and Temple to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time. They drew UConn at the Honda Center in Anaheim, some 40 miles from where Leonard went to high school in Riverside (some people like to say that Leonard is the best thing to come out of Riverside since the 91, the major east-west freeway that has its traffic challenges).
Once again, Leonard showed a rare flash of emotion. But this time, it hurt the Aztecs. A man of few words to begin with, Leonard got into a verbal exchange with UConn’s Alex Oriakhi early in the game, said something that was overheard by a referee and was whistled for a technical. Already tagged with a personal foul, Leonard came out of the game.
“I was not on the floor to help my team,” Leonard told the media afterward. “I stayed in the game in my head, mentally, but just the fouls getting me out of the game, it helped them a lot.”
Fisher wasn’t happy.
“Both players were talking to one another and Kawhi got hit with a technical foul,” the coach said afterward. “And my comment was at this level, at this stage, could they not say something to them about it? To me, both guys were talking, and unfortunately for us, obviously, we get the technical and it’s Kawhi’s second foul early and he came out. But I was watching both of them as they were going and it was not one man talking, it was two.”
Asked what he had said, Leonard responded that it was “personal.”
He rarely said anything to begin with, and when he did, it didn’t turn out well.
That moment would be overshadowed when Jamaal Franklin brushed shoulders with Kemba Walker. The UConn star hit the floor, prompting the refs to whistle Franklin for a technical.
SDSU went on to lose 74-67 to the eventual national champion. Just like that, Leonard’s short but brilliant college career was over.
He declared for the draft and was taken with the 15th overall pick by Indiana, who traded him to San Antonio later that night.
Here he is on the cusp of going back to the NBA Finals with his new team.
And if Toronto pulls off a Finals victory agains the heavily favored juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors, maybe we’ll see that smile.