Kawhi has come to take LeBron’s place

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Chris Szagola / AP

LeBron James? Wait, who? Oh, you got him confused with Raptors star Kawhi Leonard.

Step aside, LeBron—Leonard has stepped out of the shadows and into the NBA spotlight. And in just one season with Toronto, he has established himself as the heir to James’ title of the world’s best player.

Leonard has proven to be everything the Raptors thought he could be and more, having led Canada’s team to its first-ever NBA Finals appearance. He has built the case for being the game’s best two-way player and he’s playing the best basketball of his life. In the playoffs, Leonard has averaged 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game.

Leonard’s newfound mastery of the long-range shot has raised his game to remarkable heights and elevated his team to reach star status. The main storyline depicts an all-around player whose transcendent playoff run has been nothing short of amazing. What a season it has been, highlighted by Leonard’s success. For those still speculating that he’s leaving the Raptors, Leonard could decide to stick with Toronto.

If not for Kawhi, there’s no Finals for a team that has relied heavily on him. This is exactly how the Raptors have gotten to where they are, just sitting four wins away from their first title in franchise history. Canadians can kindly thank Leonard for putting the team and an entire nation on his back. The rest of the world can politely applaud Leonard for dominating on both ends of the floor.

And now, even if he’s just in the North for one season, the Raptors are grateful to have him by their side. Great players elevate their level of play to match expectations and they live up to their names. They showcase their offensive versatility, along with their defensive prowess.

That’s exactly what Leonard has done. He has carried the Raptors’ heavy load, with just one leg. Not feeling 100 percent, Leonard shrugs off an apparent leg injury. Some nights his leg might hurt like hell, but he’s a fierce competitor who remains driven by winning.

The Los Angeles native has become a Canadian national treasure. He stands as being one of the great Raptors of all time. More than just his crafty moves and shooting ability, Leonard takes pride in his defense. The fact is, he has quick feet and very good hands and uses his brute strength to defend. We can make arguments that he’s one of best defensive specialists of his era, one whose contributions have made all the difference for the Raptors.

Let’s appreciate what’s going on, and let’s  turn our attention to Toronto’s most complete player this season. For the most part, there’s no one in his era on a team who is as superb as him on both ends of the floor. And sure, that’s true. The whole purpose of acquiring Leonard last summer in a trade was to take an immediate turn upward and contend for a championship.

Leonard has won a championship before, and suddenly he is positioned to win his second. He was twice named Defensive Player of the Year, when he balled for the Spurs. Gaze at the tough-nosed, man-to-man defender, with ice water in his veins, baiting everybody he guards into giving up the ball or attempting to score over him. Turn and look at him, a distributor, a facilitator and a legitimate scorer.

Leonard contests every shot, shuts down everybody, runs the floor hard and neutralizes the best player on the floor. He is a skilled ball handler in his own right, and has become the team’s primary creator, thanks to his coach, Nick Nurse, who has received plenty of credit for resetting the Raptors’ culture.

There’s an enormous amount of hype surrounding him. And despite all the pressure and noise, Leonard has amazingly  met the expectations placed on him. Before he came to Toronto on short notice, the Raptors were already playoff contenders but they just weren’t good enough to reach the conference finals.

And yes, comparing Leonard to the Lakers superstar, however, is only fair when he’s better than James. While James is significantly declining in every phase, Leonard is rising to a new level with a different team in another city where he has morphed into a hyper-efficient scorer.

The Raptors are better with Leonard, their All-Star talent. You can’t beat them with him on the floor. In actuality you can take him out of his rhythm and try hard to frustrate him. But Leonard usually finds his way to the rim and creates his own shot. This is beautiful, so let’s acknowledge it, embrace it and have much regard for his achievements.

That’s how Leonard has played this season. He has risen to the occasion and kept the Raptors’ title hopes afloat. And when he’s on it, this is the scariest team in basketball. For a country that adores him, he’s letting everybody know that he’s the new face of a Canadian franchise.

In the opener of a second-round playoff series, Leonard poured in a playoff career-high 45 points in a Game 1 win over Philadelphia. He registered seven playoff games of at least 35 points and emulated Kobe Bryant with his killer mentality. The 76ers’ season ended in heartbreaking fashion when Leonard buried a dagger on the final buzzer.

Leonard’s demeanor is definitely laid-back, quiet. The game, his athleticism, his finesse speaks for him. Give him credit where credit is due. Leonard is the greatest player on the planet, and there’s simply no denying it, unless you’re so ignorant that you ignore obvious facts. The Raptors have catapulted to the top of the league this season, with his ability to score and disrupt the opponent’s offensive flow.

They will, of course, beat the Golden State Warriors if Leonard continues to perform brilliantly. They will win. They will prevail.

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