Midway through last night’s sixth and deciding game of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, the Toronto Raptors’ star forward Kawhi Leonard sized things up from the top of the three-point arc. Leonard—6 feet 7 inches tall and 230 pounds, with wide hands and a stony expression—took two hard dribbles to the rim, jump-stopped, and rose for a layup, but the Warriors center Kevon Looney arrived to deliver a hard foul. Leonard muscled through the contact and made the shot anyway, extending the Raptors’ three-point lead and embodying, for a moment, a team-wide theme: of hard work done simply, of advantages unflashily accrued.
By the end of the night, the Raptors had won, 114–110, to take the series four games to two, claiming the first championship in the franchise’s 24-year history and the first NBA title for any team outside the United States. Leonard was awarded Finals MVP, having averaged 28 points and almost 10 rebounds to go along with two steals and one block. Watching him tally these statistics was like watching a well-drilled student work lines of algebra.
As the distinguishing traits of champions go, readiness is not a particularly scintillating one. This is doubly true in the context of recent NBA history, which has taken on the feel of a space race. The Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant/Klay Thompson Warriors have spent the past few years inverting the court, making the far reaches beyond the three-point line the crucial territory, and their competitors have mostly tried to match their boldness, if not their specific strategy. LeBron James assembled a superstar conglomerate in Cleveland and has attempted the same in Los Angeles; the Houston Rockets have run basketball through algorithms. Contemporary thinking says the way to win a title is by reimagining the game.