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Amid NBA Finals and lawsuit, Kawhi Leonard remains unfazed

June 4, 2019
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Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) and teammate Fred VanVleet (23) celebrate a point against the Golden State Warriors during the first half of Game 2 of basketball’s NBA Finals, Sunday, June 2, 2019, in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Toronto star Kawhi Leonard has more than a few things on his mind these days.

He’ll be a free agent in a few weeks and will decide where he wants to play next season. He’s apparently headed to federal court to solve a disagreement with Nike. He’s clearly dealing with something that isn’t right in his lower body, though he and the team continue to insist that he’s fine.

And, oh, there’s the NBA Finals.

Game 3 of a tied series, Leonard and the Toronto Raptors taking on the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, the biggest game yet this season, is happening Wednesday night.

All that would overload some people. Leonard, however, isn’t like most people. He’s unfazed.

“I think it just comes naturally,” Leonard said. “All NBA players, there’s so much distractions from you playing in high school to college to now becoming a pro, it’s probably just pretty much second-nature at this point.”

Leonard is famously, almost mythically, quiet. He tends to give short answers during news conferences. He’s not a social-media guy. So it was an odd look on Monday when he — his attorneys, anyway — filed a federal lawsuit in Southern California against Nike over the rights to his distinctive “klaw” logo, one Leonard says he drew himself in either 2011 or 2012.

He rarely makes news. To make news like that, during an off day for the NBA Finals, with the series shifting to California, was eye-raising.

“It happened a long time ago,” Leonard said of the disagreement between he and Nike — and the lawsuit shows that the battle over the logo has indeed gone on for some time, then ramped up to get to this point. “You guys are just finding out. It’s not a big worry of mine. ... I’ve known about it.”

In other words, he’s played through that particular portion of off-court drama throughout these playoffs.

Obviously, he’s handled it just fine.

The Raptors are here largely because of Leonard. Even though six bad minutes that became an 18-0 Golden State run to start the second half of Game 2 — “the quarter from hell,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse called it — ultimately cost Toronto its chance at a 2-0 series lead and retaining home-court advantage, there’s still no obvious sense of uneasiness from the Eastern Conference champions.

“It’s going to be even harder on the road,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “But we’re capable and we know what we bring to the table.”

The Raptors have already rallied from 2-1 series deficits twice in these playoffs — against Philadelphia in the second round and against Milwaukee in the East finals. No team in the current 16-team postseason format, which the NBA went to in 1984, has overcome three of those in the same season.

“We want to be the first to four,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “Every game is an urgent game.”

Learning to deal with noise from the outside world is a skill that the Raptors have proudly gotten fairly adept at this season — amid the constant din surrounding the trade that brought Leonard to Toronto and whether the team could possibly find a way to entice him to sign and stick around past this season.

The last thing the Raptors are worried about is a court case.

“A lot of times I don’t know about much of the noise until somebody asks me a question about it, a lot of times,” Nurse said Tuesday before his team practiced at Oracle Arena. “To me, it’s like part of the job. Like most people, I love listening to all the shows and the podcasts and whatever. And I haven’t listened to a one since the playoffs started. I miss it.”

The free agency stuff with Leonard, that’ll all get worked out one way or another starting June 30.

The noise of concern for Toronto is what’s going to be coming from the fans at Oracle on Wednesday night. Much in the same way that the Toronto crowd fueled the Raptors in Game 1, the same can be expected in the Bay Area for Game 3 — particularly since it’ll be either the second-to-last, or next-to-last, time the Warriors call this building home.

As with off-court noise, Leonard won’t be bothered. Or listening.

“It’s nothing new to me,” Leonard said.

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