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SportsRaptors following Leonard’s ability to stay cool under pressure

20:51  02 june  2019
20:51  02 june  2019 Source:   sportsnet.ca

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Kawhi Leonard is leading the Toronto Raptors on the court with his play but his steady calmness has been rubbing off on his teammates as they have found a No one seems better suited to that task than Leonard who once called the 82-game regular season ‘practice’ for the playoffs and remains largely

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Raptors following Leonard’s ability to stay cool under pressure© Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS raptors-kawhi-lowry

TORONTO – Not too high, not too low. Even-keeled. Next play.

When the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors are remembered – regardless of whether it’s as NBA champions or witness to the Golden State Warriors fourth championship in five years – their collective demeanour will figure prominently in the reviews.

Man for man they seem to have perfected the art of managing their emotional and mental state in a way that’s sustainable over, say, a two-month long post-season.

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Kyle Lowry has spent his entire career wearing his emotions on his sleeve. And while during his seven years as a Raptor he’s come miles from the frustrated young point guard who could only express his feelings in anger, the steadiness Lowry’s mainly exhibited this season is a new standard.

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But Lowry is just going with the flow this year and this post-season. The Raptors are team chill:

“I mean, it’s pretty crazy that it’s a team that everyone just kind of is staying the same way,” Lowry says. “We have been preaching it all year, so it kind of just became contagious. Most guys’ personalities are just even-keeled off the court. On the court, we’ve got some fiery guys. But off the floor, we have some grown men, people with families and kids. They understand that their profession is their lives. That’s what they do. [Off the floor] they take care of their families, their friends, their bodies. They’re professional.”

But even in that context Kawhi Leonard stands apart and not only because he’s averaging 30.7 points and 8.8 rebounds and 50.1 per cent shooting over 20 playoff starts.

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The former San Antonio Spur is leading the Raptors on the court with his play but his unblinking expression regardless of circumstance has made itself felt too. Does Leonard’s steady calmness rub off on his teammates?

“I would be lying to you if I said it didn’t,” said Lowry. “And also Marc [Gasol] and Danny [Green] and [head coach] Nick Nurse. I think Nick honestly yelled at us twice the whole year. That’s legit: twice the whole year. And that’s a long season to only yell at a team twice. I think that’s just Nick and Kawhi and Marc and Danny — everyone is just kind of going out there and staying even-keeled.

“Like I said, we have real professionals. We have some great guys in that locker room. It all just rubs together and everyone has their own personalities, but we figure a way out to just all understand what the common goal was.”

The short-term goal is to jump out to what would be a commanding 2-0 lead Sunday night at Scotiabank Arena against the Golden State Warriors who seemed not quite themselves in Game 1. They let the Raptors control the tempo of the game, were sloppy in transition where the Raptors punished them – none more than Pascal Siakam, who galloped to 32 points on 17 shots in his Finals debut.

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Toronto’s long-term goal would be to maintain their edge as the series shifts to Oakland for Games 3 and 4 this week and keep it long enough to do what oddsmakers thought nearly impossible just a couple of weeks ago when the Raptors were trailing 2-1 against Philadelphia in the second round or down 2-0 to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals or simply waiting to face the Warriors juggernaut for the NBA title.

No one seems better suited to that task than Leonard who once called the 82-game regular season ‘practice’ for the playoffs and remains largely inscrutable even as he’s hitting series-defining shots as a matter of routine – his passionate response to his series-clinching walk-off shot in Game 7 against Philadelphia the exception.

Leonard says he’s always been like that, but coming up under the tutelage of the likes of Tim Duncan, who also largely kept his emotions tucked in his back pocket, was another factor.

“Coming right in as a rookie probably helped me just guarding the best player every night. Always wanting to win,” said Leonard. “Learning from the great teammates that I had then, from Tim [Duncan], Tony [Parker] and Manu [Ginobili]. Seeing how they approached the game — every game, win, lose, missing a shot, game-winning shot, making a bad mistake. I guess just growing up, being in these moments before. If you’re playing a championship game in high school, you kind of get the same feeling.

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“I just try to take my experiences and just keep moving forward and just have fun. Like I said, just basketball at this point. Win, lose or draw, I’m still going to be living, still got a family. This is all for fun.”

Raptors following Leonard’s ability to stay cool under pressure© Provided by Rogers Media Inc San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan, second from left, talks with teammates Kawhi Leonard, left, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game. (Darren Abate/AP)

Leonard just shows his fun side – or his competitive side – a little differently than most people. At the other end of the scale might be the Warriors’ Draymond Green who can be so-over-the-top with his on-court passion he can pay a dear price for it. There’s a very real possibility that the Warriors would be gunning for their fifth straight championship had Green not over-reacted when LeBron James stepped over him in Game 4 of the 2015-16 Finals.

Green responded by taking a swipe at James’ groin. He was assessed a flagrant foul and because he’d accumulated four during the playoffs, was automatically suspended. The Cleveland Cavaliers won Game 5 in Oakland with Green out and ended up losing the Finals after leading 3-1, an NBA first.

Recently Green said he’s actively been working to tone down his outbursts:

“I realized I got to a point where I was doing more crying than playing,” he said. “I’m sure it was disgusting to watch, because I felt disgusting playing that way.”

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But Green would still have to tone it down an incalculable number of notches to get to Leonard’s level, something he has no interest in doing.

“No, I don’t want to be Kawhi or have Kawhi’s emotions,” said Green. “The way Kawhi goes about his game and his emotions ain’t get me to where I am today. So no, I don’t aspire to be Kawhi and the way he emotionally approaches the game of basketball. That set of emotions hasn’t worked for me and my emotions haven’t worked for him. That’s the unique thing about basketball. I think it’s also one of the reasons fans can’t really relate because you see one guy and it’s like, oh, well, he acts this way and another guy acts this way. That doesn’t make sense to me. Well, that’s kind of the unique thing about the sport that we play.”

Leonard and Green are on the same floor, each playing giant roles on their teams, but in completely different ways. Green is one of the NBA’s most prolific trash-talkers.

This is not an issue for Leonard.

“It really doesn’t happen too much,” Leonard said. “I really can’t say it happens.”

Trash-talking, chest thumping and boasting have been part of the emotional arsenal for a long line of NBA stars, although there have been notable exceptions too — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone and Duncan all come to mind – it’s just not Leonard’s thing.

“It’s just the way I play,” says Leonard. “Until we win the game or it’s all done, then I’ll show some emotion. But I want to stay even-keeled while I’m going through it.”

The Raptors are more than happy to go through it along with him, even-keeled, steady as she goes.

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