TORONTO – Of all the differences between the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors the most basic may be the one nothing can be done about.
Beyond all their glamorous, mind-bending feats of scoring, their star-power and their championship pedigree the have the most basic quality shared by most championship teams, one that’s impossible to replicate or defend:
They’ve been around a while. They’ve seen some things. They have time on their side.
Their core of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have shared 118 playoff games over seven seasons; Andre Iguodala 106 games over six; Shaun Livingston will play his 100th post-season game with the Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals; When they needed to add some depth at centre late in the season they brought back Andrew Bogut, who was part of the original core, won a championship with them in 2015 and was part of the team that won an NBA-record 73 games a year later. No introductions were necessary.
For the Raptors franchise it will be playoff game No.101 spread across 24 seasons.
When the ball goes up for this iteration of the Raptors it will be their 19th playoff game together on the heels of a regular season when the starting lineup played a total of 161 minutes as a unit. The Warriors can speak their own language. The Raptors are – figuratively – still wearing name tags.
But somehow they’ve got it done, they’ve made it this far.
The fabric of the team has come together quickly, the weave getting tighter and sturdier with each passing test.
Jodie Meeks was the last player added to the Raptors roster, added to provide the potential for instant offence of the bench if or when the needed arises. As a 10-year veteran he’s seen teams that thrive and fail. He quickly saw the right ingredients in Toronto.
"The ultimate goal is to win, it’s kind of cliché, but it’s really true," said Meeks after the Raptors watched film and practiced lightly on Monday. "I’ve been on teams where people say it but they don’t really mean it. This team does.
"There’s no Rocky speeches, but everyone wants to win so you’re doing something wrong on film, you might blurt it out. There’s no Kumbayas or ‘300’ [movie] moments. It’s a bunch of pros.
"I’ve been impressed with the toughness of the team, how we can make adjustments on the fly," said Meeks. "A lot of times that comes with years and years of being together. The Warriors have been together six or seven years, the Spurs were like that. That’s usually when that kind of stuff happens, but this team has been able to figure it out and I’ve been very impressed with that."
It has happened organically – there hasn’t been a lot of time since training camp for ‘team building’. In the NBA things come fast. The best way to build unity is to have a shared purpose amongst a core of like-minded veterans, salted with the day-in-day-out sameness of life in the NBA.
"… The one thing about [this league] is you’re around each other every day," said Kyle Lowry, the longest serving Raptor. "Literally around each other every day, hours at a time. You travel together, you stay at the same hotels. It’s just a simple everyday life that being around each other you’re going to get on the same page, you’re going to have conversations, you’re going to be cool."
Stability and continuity was the advantage past Raptors teams had, it may have allowed them to exceed their overall talent in previous years. But after a 59-win season a year ago ended in a second consecutive second-round sweep, Raptors president Masai Ujiri opted to disrupt things – but he only took it so far.
In firing Dwane Casey Ujiri and replacing him with Nick Nurse, who had five years as an assistant coach with the organization. In trading DeMar DeRozan Ujiri and adding not only Kawhi Leonard but Danny Green from the San Antonio Spurs – one of Leonard’s best friends from his old team. The pair brought not only their talent but a team-first ethic that was part of the Spurs culture and has fit in well in Toronto.
"We’ve been a team since Day One," said Raptors wing Norman Powell, the longest-serving Raptor after Lowry. "The guys we brought in came from a great organization, really close knit organization with the Spurs so it was easy to bring those guys in and the guys that have always been have always preached family so bringing those guys in was really easy."
In dealing Jonas Valanciunas for Marc Gasol at the trade deadline in February there were other connections that helped bonds form quickly for the big Spaniard, who had only played for the Memphis Grizzlies in his 12-year NBA career. He played part of his rookie season with Lowry in Memphis and Spanish national team coach Sergio Scariolo is one of Nick Nurse’s assistant coaches. Serge Ibaka is a Spanish national team teammate. There have been years of Western Conference battles with Leonard and Green from their Spurs years.
"Everything helped, everyone, from having the relationship with Kyle, with Serge, with Sergio, playing against, many times against Kawhi and Danny," said Gasol of his rapid acclimation. "… It wasn’t just because of Kyle. I played with him that long ago, it’s, I think everyone from the team and outside has helped me."
Teams that make seismic-type changes year-over-year aren’t supposed to excel the way the Raptors have – their 58-win season felt like just a warm-up. Championship-level basketball is supposed to be best savoured after a long simmer, not a quick boil. The 2008 Celtics were the exception, not the rule. Remember? Even the first edition of the Miami Heat failed to win a title in 2011. It took a season to work out the kinks. The Warriors stumbled in the playoffs twice before dynasty-mode was activated.
The Raptors don’t have the luxury of time. Leonard’s future in Toronto beyond this season is unknown and no one more than Leonard – having already missed nearly a full season of his career and having gone five years between Finals appearances – understands that these opportunities are fleeting.
And already it takes only a little bit of imagination to see how things could have gone off the rails here before reaching this stage:
The Raptors lost Game 1 against Orlando and were on the verge of going down 3-1 against Philadelphia before they pulled out Game 4; a Game 7 a nail-biter required ‘The Shot‘ by Leonard. Falling down 2-0 to Milwaukee and then somehow escaping with a double-overtime win in Game 3 was heart-attack territory. Coming from behind by 14 and by 15 in Games 5 and 6 added to the stress levels.
The Raptors didn’t so much win the Eastern Conference, they survived an 18-game war of attrition that pushed them to the limit.
And you know what?
They’re glad of it. When a team doesn’t have the opportunity to grow organically over time, being forged in a crucible will have to do.
"I think it’s meant a lot," Powell said of the walk through the fire the team has had to take. "We’ve been battle-tested in all three series that we’ve had so far — different looks, different playing styles, different coverages, different rotations. I just think the group of guys we have are so selfless and able to give themselves up for the team, sacrifice whatever the team needs to be able to go out there and get a win. I think every day, every game, we’ve just been able to grow and get better.
"Even when there are games where we don’t play our best, we’re all open to learning how we can improve and get better and be more tied in on the defensive and offensive end. We’ve just been so motivating with one another, keeping guys motivated and positive through the ups and downs of bad games, bad shooting nights, good games. Just continuing to stay in the ear of guys that might have been struggling or not getting the minutes that they want or not hitting the shots that they normally hit. We’ve all been really tied in as a family, motivating our brothers to keep going and keep fighting."
Maybe going through what they’ve gone through was the only way to get where they want to go.
"The last series and this series [seven games against Philadelphia; six games against Orlando] really helped us be tough," said Ibaka moments after Toronto’s closeout win against the Bucks Saturday night. "Because we know it’s going to be tough for us."
It’s not getting easier. But the Raptors have had to figure it out in real time all season long. What’s one more test? The Raptors’ time is now.