by Jim SLATER
OAKLAND, United States (AFP) — Kawhi Leonard trusted himself when people doubted he was injured last year, finding an inner calm that one year later has returned him to the level of NBA champion.
Leonard won his second career NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award on Thursday, helping spark the Toronto Raptors to a 114-110 victory over the Golden State Warriors and a 4-2 triumph in the best-of-seven series.
The 27-year-old forward from Los Angeles, who first won the award in 2014 when he led San Antonio to the crown, joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James as the only players to win the award with two different clubs, the Spurs having traded Leonard to Toronto last July.
“I didn’t come out in this series trying to win (the MVP award),” Leonard said. “It was a whole group collectively. I just kept striving and pushing and I ended up with the trophy but everybody deserves it.”
It’s hard to deny Leonard’s heroics, notably his four-bounce buzzer beater in game seven to defeat Philadelphia in the second round.
His 732 points in this year’s playoffs are the third-most in any playoff run, 16 fewer than LeBron James last year and 27 off Michael Jordan’s 1992 record.
“I’m not trying to make headlines,” Leonard said. “That’s how I just keep growing up as a man. I just think about my past life and try to learn from situations and be wise and learn from others.”
A right quadriceps injury kept Leonard out for most of last season in San Antonio, some reports saying Leonard no longer wanted to play for the Spurs and used the injury as a means to that end.
That, Leonard said, insulted him in a way that helped motivate him when he healed and returned with the Raptors.
“Last year, a lot of people were doubting me. They thought I was either faking an injury or didn’t want to play for a team,” Leonard said.
“I don’t care about what the media has to say about me or if they want me to score or 30 points because I did the game before, I’m going to come out and play the right way.”
– Patience pays off –
That meant waiting until he was ready and making the most of his return.
“Last summer was tough. I was still rehabbing and just trusted the process. I told myself I would be back,” Leonard said.
“I wasn’t going to come back until I could be the player I am today. I wanted to come back in the same shape and form without coming out playing five games and then re-injuring something.”
That adversity made lifting the championship trophy even sweeter.
“Being able to win this championship this year is just something special for me because you know how the last year everybody was looking at me, and I stayed true to myself,” Leonard said. “Once I got here to Toronto they understood everything and kept moving from there.
“I wanted to make history here and that’s what I did. I’m still playing basketball no matter what jersey I have on. I knew they were a talented team. And I just came in with the right mindset — let’s go out and win ball games.”
© Agence France-Presse