As one of the four hosts of the popular daily NBATV show The Starters, Leigh Ellis has his finger on the pulse of the NBA Finals.
After traveling from Oakland to Toronto, where The Starters will host a pre-game show from outside of Jurassic Park ahead of Game 5, Ellis caught up with NBA.com to give his thoughts on a variety of topics including what makes Kawhi Leonard rise to the occasion against great teams, what was going through his head reporting live from a sea of Raptors fans in Oracle Arena after Game 4, and whether he thinks the Raptors will finish off the Warriors on Monday.
(Editor note: Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and length)
NBA.com: After the Raptors won Game 4 in Oracle Arena, there were hundreds of Raptors fans down by the court celebrating and going nuts. You went right out into the middle of it all on live TV and joined them. What was that like?
It was really surreal. That wasn't planned beforehand. The game ended and I texted my producers and I said 'this is crazy, do you want me to jump in'?
He calls me and asks what I was planning on doing to which I just said "I have no idea. If you can get a camera, get me mic'd up, I'll jump in there and just see what happens."
About to head into the crowd with Raps fans pic.twitter.com/aCxuGYrSzN- Leigh Ellis (@LeighEllis) June 8, 2019
As I jump in there the Game Time crew (post-game show on NBATV) is live and they didn't really know what was happening so the producers just told them to toss it to Leigh in the stands. I'm listening for a cue, it's loud I can't really hear much, all the fans are tapping me on the shoulder and asking me questions and just wanted to talk about the game.
"This is one of the most amazing scenes I've ever seen."@LeighEllis of @TheStarters checks in with the @Raptors fans in the stands at Oracle! #NBAFinals pic.twitter.com/1wBuNEZ2Ry- NBA TV (@NBATV) June 8, 2019
Somehow, I finally hear a cue. I thought to myself I'm just going to let my emotions take over and whatever comes out of my mouth, that's it. It was crazy, so many fans were so happy and so excited and all of them were also trying to talk to the camera. I just decided to roll with it and I'm thinking are they going to be able to hear my questions, is it going to translate well on TV, will anyone be able to understand what's happening, are they going to swear… all of these unknowns. There's just something about live TV that when you really get the adrenaline is flowing like that, you're hoping it goes well but it's live and it's crazy and you just never really know.
It was a really surreal moment to be a part of and something I'll never forget.
NBA.com: Tas and Skeets… are they just complete nervous wrecks watching this Raptors run unfold? (Tas Melas and J.E. Skeets are Canadians and fellow co-hosts of The Starters along with American Trey Kerby).
Yes and no. The Raptors have been a team that's expected to do well in the playoffs for several years now and have run into LeBron James a few times and the fact that LeBron wasn't here this time certainly made for more nerves because there were realistic and lofty expectations. With no LeBron, there's no reason not to succeed.
Think back to that first Magic series, they lose Game 1 at home… classic Raptors, they always lose the first game at home and you're thinking "okay here we go again."
And then against Philadelphia, they come out with a very strong performance the first game but then they go down 2-1 and they're facing what's virtually a must win in Game 4. They pull that victory off. That goes to seven and of course we get the crazy Kawhi bounce. If that doesn't go in, a lot of people felt like the season might have ended in overtime and the feeling would have been 'well that was a good series, but same old ending for the Raptors'. But they get out of it.
And then against Milwaukee, they give a really good performance in Game 1 but they lose at the end and then Game 2 they get crushed and you just start thinking "well it was a good run, they ran into the next great team that was rested and fresh and they have Giannis who is probably going to win the MVP" and they once again pull themselves out of trouble in that one.
And then they're in the Finals only to face the Warriors. And nobody beats the Warriors, right? And now all of the sudden they're in this position where they really should win this. They should win the championship.
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This is a position where nobody really expected them to have a chance to close it out this first time at home. Everyone's nervous, everyone's excited… the feeling is just that they really should do it. Even if Kevin Durant is back, the Raptors have played well enough and shown that this is their championship to win. It would be an incredible moment for Toronto, for Canada, certainly for Tas and Skeets and everyone that's a Raptors fan.
NBA.com: When Masai Ujiri made the trade for Kawhi Leonard last summer, it was established that the goal was to "win a championship." Every good team says that every year, but Masai truly meant it and now they're with a chance to actually do it. Did you ever think at any point throughout th season that this moment would ever happen? Or that they'd even get this chance?
Well I do now. You can probably point to that Game 4 victory as the point that finally convinced me that they could really do it. After Game 3 where there was no Klay Thompson and the Raptors simply had to win that game to prove that they could. If they lose that game, you'd come away thinking they have no chance. But they did it and did it relatively comfortable for an NBA Finals game on the road. So with Game 4… Klay coming back, the Warriors feeling better, this is probably one of those games that's an emotional comeback, they probably don't want to leave Oracle potentially for the last time with a loss… all signs pointed to Golden State.
"I'm just playing to win." - Kawhi Leonard- Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) June 8, 2019
36 Pts | 12 Reb | 5 3PM | 4 Stl pic.twitter.com/qhSUr9Gd8N
Instead the Raptors overcame that big early deficit then controlled the game and basically did to the Warriors what the Warriors typically do to everyone else in that third quarter. They took the game away from them and then closed it out. There were some times that Steph would hit a couple shots and you thought the old Warriors will rattle off one of those quick runs and instead it was the Raptors responding with big shots.
MORE: Biggest factors that will decide Game 5
It wasn't just Kawhi… Kyle Lowry hit some shots, Serge Ibaka hit some shots and blocked a few on the other end… it was truly a team effort. Now they find themselves in this position where the Raptors really should win this on Monday. Based on what we've seen so far, there's no reason to believe they won't show up for that moment now in Game 5.
Kyle Lowry has been absolutely superb. What he's doing, not necessarily scoring or getting assists, but sacrificing his body - taking charges, diving on loose balls no matter the score or time and really doing everything to show everyone else on the team a certain level of desperation and that's something that goes a really long ways in an NBA locker room. Kawhi's certainly the best player but I think Kyle's the leader, the heart and soul. Doing all of those small things adds up and when guys see the leader doing that, it makes everyone else buy in and realize that they have to do it too. It really sends a strong message.
NBA.com: If the Raptors finish this off, Kawhi Leonard is now a giant killer. He took down LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2014 who were seeking a three-peat and playing in a fourth straight Finals. Five years later he might be the one to end the Warriors dynasty. What is it about Kawhi that's enabled him to consistently rise to the occasion against these all-time teams?
I think a lot of it comes down to his composure. If you think back to that Milwaukee series, after that Game 2 loss which was a really devastating loss for the Raptors… they were outplayed, outworked and looked tired coming off that long series against Philadelphia. Kawhi was asked after that something to the effect of "now down 2-0 to the Bucks, where do you go from here? What's the situation for you guys now?"
And he just responds "well we go to Toronto for Game 3."
MORE: Putting Kawhi's run into proper context
That's a common, generic answer that you hear a lot of players say, but I really don't think that Kawhi felt as if they were in really bad shape. I think he felt they played well enough to win Game 1, but just blew it at the end. Clearly Game 2 they weren't very good. Nick Nurse made the one big adjustment with putting Kawhi on Giannis and that changed the whole series. Kawhi, having won a Finals MVP and having been in the playoffs so many times with the Spurs, understood that no series is never over until it's over and especially not after two games. He does a great job of setting the tone and the other guys follow.
NBA.com: Think back to where this all started for you personally, with your love for the NBA. Growing up in Australia, you received a VHS tape of the 1987 All-Star Game which helped get you hooked on basketball. Over 30 years later, you're a prominent Australian covering the NBA and literally in the middle of everything. Have you ever stopped to think about how you're now a primary source of inspiration for other aspiring kids in Australia and elsewhere?
Honestly, every day I think about that.
I think about that little kid in the late 80s and early 90s, before the internet and before cable TV, I used to have to wait for newspapers to get delivered and find out maybe two days after the game to see results of games because there was almost zero coverage on radio and TV. There was maybe a little bit by the time Michael Jordan and the Bulls started winning in the early 90s, but that's about it. My first season really following the league was the 1987-88 season when the Lakers won back-to-back titles, I didn't know they had actually complete it until 48 hours after the fact.
If you had told 12 year old me that one day you'd be at the NBA Finals talking to Steph Curry or Pascal Siakam or whoever it is, I would have not believed you. Every single day that I'm here breathing and living this moment and experiencing everything, I treasure it and I really do try to make the most out of it. It's a special feeling and every once in a while you just have to take a deep breath and look up at the stands or like the other day at the court and you look down and the Raptors and Warriors are just practicing right there in front of you.
I always have this feeling that someone's going to come up to me, tap me on the shoulder and say you're not supposed to be here.
When you're a kid everyone has a hope and a dream about what they want to be and I feel very special that mine has turned out to be what I wished for as a young kid. I try not take it for granted and to enjoy it as much as I can.
NBA.com: Prediction time. You're in Toronto for Game 5. Who wins and why?
I'm not 100%, but I think I've picked wrong in every single game so far in this series. I'm going to say the Raptors which means I probably should say the Warriors.
But I'm going to say the Raptors because it's time to get one right and from what we've seen so far the Raptors have been playing so well and the Warriors - in addition to the injury concerns - there seems to be some fatigue setting in as well. Steph doesn't seem to have that same pep in his step and that's to be expected when you add up all of the extra games they've played now over these last five years. At some point it catches up to you and I think the Warriors look at this now at 3-1 and of course they know teams can do it, they were on the other end of it a few years ago. But this may be the end of this current Warriors run .
And I will say that hunger is a big thing too. It's apparent when you've got championships and you've won three versus the Raptors who have never been here. From Toronto, you can see that hunger from guys like Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, and of course Kawhi looking for another won, you can see that they really, REALLY want this. I do think they'll close it out at home in Game 5.