Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard is set for arguably the biggest game of his life on Thursday – but the 27-year-old says he has been through too much outside sport to let emotions jeopardise his chance of making history.
In 2008, a then 16-year-old Leonard suffered a devastating personal tragedy when his father Mark was fatally shot at the car wash he owned in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton – a crime that remains unsolved.
“Once it happened, I thought about it a lot. But as I got older, I pretty much just really stopped thinking about it,” Leonard told a news conference before the potentially decisive game six of the NBA Finals.
“It just gave me a sense and feel that life and basketball are two different things and just really enjoy your time and moments.
“This is basketball. Just go out there and have fun. These are going to be the best years of my life, playing this game.”
In the early hours of Friday morning UK time, Leonard will step on to the court at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, aiming to stop back-to-back reigning champions the Golden State Warriors from clinching a third successive title.
Leading 3-2 in the seven-game series, Leonard and his team-mates are one game from bringing the NBA title to Toronto for the first time in the franchise’s 24 years. But they have already missed one chance to close out the contest, beaten by a single point in game five on Monday.
Thirty-four teams have led an NBA Finals series 3-1 over the years, and 33 have gone on to win the championship. The one exception was the Warriors team of 2016, who missed out for the only time in the past four seasons when a LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers rallied to win in seven games.
Leonard, who has averaged 31.1 points per game in the post-season, is unfazed. “To really say, ‘Oh I feel so much pressure’ – you really don’t, once your adrenaline is going,” he said.
“It’s a lot different from watching the game because your mindset is totally different. You’re within that moment and you’re embracing it and enjoying what’s going to happen next.”
Warriors want to bid farewell to Oracle in style
Monday’s game five saw the Warriors dramatically keep the series alive, but at a cost. Superstar forward Kevin Durant, Most Valuable Player in the past two NBA Finals, ruptured his right Achilles tendon in his first game back after missing a month with a calf injury – he could be out for 12 months, according to reports.
In his absence, his team will be hoping to mark their final game at the Oracle Arena with a series-extending victory before a move to a new $1bn home in San Francisco next season.
“We’re just thinking about enjoying this last show at Oracle,” three-point sharpshooter Klay Thompson said. “I expect our fans to be the loudest they’ve ever been, especially in the name of Kevin and bringing his type of spirit to the fight and the competitiveness.”
“This has been just an incredible environment in which to coach and play back in the day,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
“Even when the Warriors weren’t any good, to come in here as a visitor and feel the energy in this building, you could tell that the fans loved the game.
“This was a basketball hotbed. And just the atmosphere out there, the energy, the noise, over the last five years with our team’s rise, combined with that organic energy that this place has always had, it’s just been an incredible experience to coach here.”