Kawhi Leonard has been there before. Gianns Antetokounmpo is trying to get there.
The two stars are the key figures in determining who will represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals—which begins next Thursday, May 30—versus the Golden State Warriors.
After losing the first two games of their best-of-seven series to Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on the road, Leonard and the Raptors returned home Sunday and saved their season with a resilient 118-112 double overtime win. Laboring through an apparent injured right leg, Leonard played 52 minutes, willing the Raptors to a had-to-have victory and averting a potentially insurmountable 3-0 hole.
They didn’t need him to be superhuman Tuesday night, as the Raptors bench, which had been in a collective slump with the exception of Norman Powell, woke up and scored a combined 48 points, led by Powell’s 18, as the Raptors maintained a solid lead for the entire half and won 120-102 to tie the series at 2-2.
The 27-year-old Leonard is an established superstar, twice being named All-NBA First Team (2016,2017) and twice winning NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Yet the most significant honors on Leonard’s resume are NBA champion and Finals MVP, won with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014.
Antetokounmpo has entered the realm of superstardom this season. He and the Houston Rockets’ James Harden are the top candidates to win the league’s regular season MVP. At 24, Antetokounmpo is among the best defenders in basketbal and even without a reliable jumper from beyond 15-feet, he is a dominant offensive force who averaged 27.7 points—third in the NBA—and 12.5 rebounds this past regular season.
But lasting greatness is attained in the playoffs, especially in the Finals. Leonard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry have etched their names in basketball history as future Hall of Famers who are champions. Antetokounmpo has the opportunity to be one as well. His time is now as there is no guarantee he’ll get this far again. The odds say he will, but he must do all he can to seize the opportunity this season has presented.