Raptors’ journey to NBA Championship shaped by struggle and sacrifice

The Toronto Raptors exit their plane to the cheers of their faithful, as the NBA Champions will celebrate the victory over the Golden State Warriors in the parade Monday.

TORONTO – Danny Green was just about to turn 27 when he won an NBA title for the first time in his life in 2014 as a member of the San Antonio Spurs.

A year prior to that he made his first NBA Finals ever in just his fourth year as a pro.

And a year before that, in 2012, he competed in his first conference finals.

It had been a blessed career for Green after his early struggles coming through the NBA D-League and finding a home with the Spurs, and he didn’t realize just how fortunate his career really was.

After winning the title in 2014, Green’s Spurs were bounced in the first round by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2015, followed up by a second-round exit in 2016 and another first-round loss in 2018.

There was a brief glimmer of return to form in 2017 when the Spurs returned to the conference finals, but that ended in a four-game sweep to the Golden State Warriors.

As such, what Green accomplished with his new team, the Toronto Raptors, in beating those same Warriors this year to claim his second NBA title certainly isn’t something he’s taking for granted. Now, he’s realized just how tough of a challenge it is to even make it back to the Finals — let alone win it all.

"I definitely appreciate it more this time around because I know how hard it was," Green said Sunday at the OVO Athletic Centre. "I was pretty spoiled in San Antonio. We went to a bunch of Western Conference Finals, we’ve won a lot, got to the Finals back-to-back years. … A lot of us never make it there and I kind of understood that more as these last five years have past, how hard it was to get there and also to get it done."

As it turns out, winning an NBA championship is actually really, really difficult.

What the Raptors managed to accomplish in this season will be remembered for many things, but for many of the players on this squad the most enduring memories will like be the journey they took together as teammates to reach the ultimate goal.

Take Game 6 hero Fred VanVleet for example, whose 12-point fourth-quarter explosion in Oakland Thursday will be forever etched into the minds of Toronto sports fans. But to the 25-year-old himself what stood out the most to him this season was all the injuries he had to overcome to finally get to this point.

"I think just starting off from the gate, going into training camp, it was the greatest I ever felt," said VanVleet. "Great shape, ready to go, excited after signing a nice contract. So it all started in training camp where I got banged up the first couple days in training camp. … from that point on, I was never really back to where I wanted to be."

VanVleet came down with a bout of turf toe that kept him out of four games near the beginning of the season, something that he says started the string of bad luck he had with injuries this campaign. After the toe injury there was a back problem in December that never really went away. Then a thumb problem in January that forced him out of the lineup for one game and a hip contusion in February that forced him to miss 12 games.

And this was just the regular season. In the playoffs VanVleet most visibly got a nasty cut under his eye and lost a tooth in the Finals and — as he revealed Sunday — was also dealing with a hip pointer from Game 3 onwards, in addition to another thumb injury that he says had been nagging him for weeks now, but that actually may have helped him.

"Did you see the way I’ve been shooting, lately," VanVleet joked, making reference to the scorching 52.6 per cent from three-point range he had been shooting since Game 4 against the Milwauke Bucks.

All kidding aside, VanVleet had been dealing with injuries that he might call minor but to regular people wouldn’t allow them to even play pick-up at the YMCA, let alone compete for an NBA championship. But to him, this level of sacrifice is what was required to get the job done.

"The last four games I was moving at half-speed out there, but we won a championship so all of those things kind of wash away and I’m feeling pretty good now," he said.

The cost VanVleet paid to his own body, though, was but one path the Raptors took to achieve this championship.

Another was Pascal Siakam, the third-year breakout star of Toronto’s playoff run whose passage to this championship coincided with his childlike sense of wonder as he appeared to be learning and improving after each high-stakes game.

"We’ve been through so much that I’m sure that whatever I’ve learned right now is gonna stay with me the rest of my life," said Siakam. "The adversity, and how hard it is, and sometimes just feeling like you’re the best in the world and then you’re the worst the next day. It’s crazy. It’s definitely something that will stay with me the rest of my life."

Like Green in 2014, the magnitude of this accomplishment hasn’t seemed to really set in for Siakam yet, but he does seem to know that this is something he can use as a blueprint to look back on for the rest of his career.

"I think the motivation is ‘look what you did in three years, what can you do in 10,’" said Siakam. "It’s about continuing to build and understanding that you put the work in and you got to this point, but it’s only been three years. What can you do in more than that? So that’s my motivation. Seeing how great I can be."

At only 25-years of age, Siakam could do worse than look to his 34-year-old teammate Marc Gasol if he’s looking to aspire to greatness.

With this NBA championship, Gasol has won nearly everything there is to win in basketball, having won a FIBA world championship gold medal in 2006, a couple EuroBasket gold medals in 2009 and 2011 and a pair of Olympic silver medals in 2008 and 2012 with the Spanish national team, in addition to a Spanish League title in 2004 with Barcelona.

Given this hefty résumé already, you’d think that perhaps an NBA championship would be something like old hat to Gasol, but in actuality this was a lot different.

"Here you go such a long time," said Gasol. "Obviously I can’t say the whole season, but if you think about the first round of the playoffs, it feels like a year ago. …

“It’s just so draining. Beating a team four times each round, it’s really hard and only the best team wins it. The best team standing is the one that’s going to win it all. With the national team it’s elimination games so obviously it’s a lot more pressure on one game. Here you’ve gotta be on it every game, every series if you want to win it all because you have to be the best team for a lot of games."

This idea Gasol speaks of, trying to consistently be the best team throughout the four series, was something that he says filled him with great emotion and it has been hard coming down from that even now because of how locked in he felt like he needed to be.

Thankfully, the reward was sweeter than he could’ve ever imagined.

"It’s just something that it’s inside of you that you held on for so long and you finally got one," said Gasol of the undefined anger he says he was feeling after the Raptors officially won on Thursday. "I didn’t know how much winning a ring would mean to me until I was getting it. That to me was something that before, I was like, ‘OK, if you win a ring great, if you don’t you don’t it’s about the process and about everything else.’

"But now that you have one you understand how hard it is to get it."

Yes, winning an NBA championship ring is really hard. Maybe you’re already aware of how Herculean the task is and are willing to sacrifice nearly everything to win one. Maybe you don’t really understand what winning one means yet. Or maybe you are just realizing how badly you really did want one after an already illustrious career. The fact is, the journey to becoming a champion is unlike any other.

And it’s because of this journey that players will keep walking down this arduous road.

"Even though I’ve been lucky, this is my second one, knowing how rare it is and this feeling of being on a high, you kind of created that again and you don’t want to lose that high," said Green. "The motivation for me is to continue to find that again wherever it may be."

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