Amidst the chaos and commotion of the Toronto Raptors locker room moments after the franchise’s first championship — the flying champagne corks, the camera flashes, the hugging, the yelling, the jumping up-and-down — Wayne Embry struck a stoic tableau. He sat alone in a black suit on a trainer’s table draped in plastic, a black “CHAMPIONS” hat covering his grey hair, a red towel over his right shoulder, his black shoes holding steady a bottle of champagne, unopened, still in its box, at his feet. Asked how he’d held up through the dramatic fourth quarter of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, he pulled back the left sleeve of his suit and looked down at the smartwatch on his wrist, then pressed a button that revealed his heart rate — a steady 76 beats per minute. He was maybe the only one in the room below triple figures.
At 82, Embry is the spiritual centre of the Raptors organization. There’s a reason why, when Toronto won the Eastern Conference Championship, they chose Embry to present the trophy. Embry won a title in 1968 playing on a Boston Celtics team that featured Bill Russell, Sam Jones, John Havlicek and Bailey Howell — legends, all of them. He won another in 1971 as part of the Milwaukee Bucks front office, the team he’d eventually lead as the NBA’s first African-American general manager. He joined the Raptors as a senior advisor in 2004, and he’s been there for every triumph and defeat since. Raptors fans know them well. Embry knows them better.
He’s seen an awful lot. But he’d never seen anything like this. It brought tears to his eyes to watch the 2018–19 Raptors win it all. Watching Kawhi Leonard pace the floor after the final buzzer, arms in the air, roaring. Watching Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet embrace, Serge Ibaka pump his fists towards the crowd, Kyle Lowry lift that big, gold trophy over his head. Knowing that back in Toronto the streets were filling with ecstatic fans, shutting down intersections, scaling lampposts, celebrating something many of them never imagined would actually happen. Embry hung onto every second of it. He thought about the road the franchise took to this place. “At my age, any time you win a championship is special. I’ve been here before. But this is the finest,” he said. “Won as a player in ’68 — and ’71 in the front office. But nothing like this. The significance of winning in Toronto. And Canada. A whole country behind you. It’s just unbelievable.”
It is, isn’t it? Be honest — did you ever think you’d see the day? Last July, when Raptors president Masai Ujiri fired the Coach of the Year, traded a franchise icon, and acquired an enigmatic star coming off a lost season — one who reportedly had no interest in playing for the team he now belonged to — did you think he’d be fighting his way onto the court to celebrate a championship this June?
Through an uneven regular season, load management, a roster in perpetual flux, the obsessive tinkering and experimentation of a rookie head coach, and a trade deadline that saw three familiar faces — a fan favourite and two important depth pieces — jettisoned in the name of upgrading at a single position, did you really expect this outcome?
When the Raptors lost Game 1 against the Orlando Magic, went down two games to one to the Philadelphia 76ers with Game 4 on the road, dropped the first two games against the 60-win Milwaukee Bucks and went into double-overtime without Lowry in Game 3 — did you believe you were watching a championship team?
Well, you were. The Toronto Raptors are NBA Champions. They beat the Golden State Warriors, one of the best teams the league’s ever seen, and made it look easier than a six-game series suggests. The Raptors defence held the Warriors to 105.8 points per game, a dozen less than Golden State averaged during the regular season. Toronto won or tied 19 of 24 quarters. They were better offensively, better in their own end, better period. And because of it, a championship banner will hang in Toronto this fall.
It almost went too quickly. At the end of an eight-week playoff run, the Finals felt like a sprint to the marathon’s finish line. But it was anything but a blur for those who lived it — for the players and staff in the dressing rooms and arena tunnels, and on the practice courts. Their moments of triumph and failure, exhaustion and recovery, were all-consuming and intense, despite the workmanlike calm these professionals emit. Nothing about the process was easy. But everything about the result was earned.
A single piece of white paper floated calmly in the large, blue bucket of ice sitting in front of Danny Green’s locker. It was the official scorer’s report from that night’s game, the first of the NBA Finals between Green’s scrappy, underdog Toronto Raptors, who had never been there before, and the fire-breathing, dynastic Golden State Warriors, there for a fifth consecutive season, trying to win a fourth title in that span. A matrix of numbers ran up and down the report, some of them blurring and fading as the sheet took on water — field goals, rebounds, assists, turnovers. None of them mattered more than the two biggest numbers along the right border of the page: Raptors 118, Warriors 109.
It was waiting there in the water when Green returned to the Raptors dressing room about 20 minutes after the final buzzer. He was still wearing his full uniform, still fully taped, still sweating. He’d been ushered to an interview with an on-court television panel immediately after the game. Green fell into the chair in front of his locker and took a couple moments to collect himself before peeling off his uniform and the long black sleeve covering his left arm. He cut free the thick black tape wrapping his left wrist and thumb, and then lifted each of his legs, hands under his knees, and slowly lowered his swollen feet into the icy water. He fished out the box score, carefully letting the water run off of it, before laying it flat next to the tub and leaning forward to take a closer look.
Green’s shooting had been a widely discussed topic coming into the night, and not for the reason he’d like. He was missing. A lot. One of the league’s most dangerous three-point threats, a man who hit 45 per cent of his attempts from beyond the arc during the regular season, Green had shot just 31 per cent from distance over the first three rounds of the playoffs. Of course, all shooters slump. But for it to happen now, with the games so consequential and the entire NBA world watching, meant Green couldn’t escape it. Every person he ran into told him not to think about it. How am I supposed to stop thinking about it when people keep telling me to stop thinking about it?
But on this night, next to his name under “3P” — three-pointers made — was the number three, the same total he’d managed in his past five games combined. He’d finally gotten some shots to fall, including one a little more than a minute into the first quarter that released a wave of relief through a Scotiabank Arena crowd that palpably tensed every time he let one go. And he should’ve had four. His second-last attempt of the game, an open look from the corner, was on its way in before it rattled off both sides of the rim and out. “Yeah, that fourth one would’ve been nice,” Green said, looking up and down the sheet. “Needed that.”
About five hours earlier, Green had stood in a food service area adjacent to Toronto’s dressing room, going over film with Raptors assistant coach Phil Handy. He’d hovered over Handy and his laptop for 10 minutes, as the coach went over what Green might see that night — coverages, pick-and-rolls, blue-and-gold jerseys flying all over the place. The Raptors wanted to beat the Warriors’ pace. They wanted to attack in transition; to recycle the ball as quickly as possible off made buckets and get it up into Golden State’s end before the Warriors had a chance to set their defence. Head coach Nick Nurse stressed it when he took a seat next to Pascal Siakam in Toronto’s dressing room and delivered his final pregame message. “Take the ball out and run it back at them — they’re going to do the same,” Nurse had said, forcefully. “We’re going to make mistakes [that lead to Golden State baskets] and we’re going to take it out.”
With the ice melting around his ankles, Green finished with the soaked stat sheet and fired off a series of text messages on each of his two phones. He pulled his frigid feet out of the bucket, threw both phones in his locker, and slowly made his way to the showers, passing all the players who, with the Warriors defence keyed on Kawhi Leonard, had come up so big in Game 1. Siakam, who’d played more than 40 minutes in a dead sprint and ridden his unmatched motor to a career playoff-high 32 points, was getting ready for his podium appearance. Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet, who’d poured in 20 and 15 points, respectively. “We’re here — we deserve to be here,” Green had told his teammates in their final huddle before taking the floor. The Raptors had played like they didn’t need reminding.
The reverberating thumps of a basketball, the swish of a net, and the squeak of sneakers on hardwood cut through the still, cold air in a deserted Scotiabank Arena early on a Saturday morning. Marc Gasol had taken the floor with Raptors assistant coach Jim Sann a little after 10 a.m. to get some shots up. Sann directed him to different parts of the floor, asking Gasol to imagine coming off different actions, barking out looks that he might see and getting him to react. The Raptors weren’t running a full practice on this day. No team does at this point in the playoffs. You’re too beat up, too hurt. Recovery is the priority. You watch game tape, you discuss strategy and potential adjustments, maybe walk through a couple plays, and then you get what you need — whether it’s a little extra film study, an hour on the trainer’s table or, in Gasol’s case, some extra shooting.
Gasol’s impact on the Raptors after he was acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies at the trade deadline can’t be overstated. Toronto went from averaging 34.5 per cent from beyond the arc to a league-best 41. The team’s assist rate climbed from 57.8 to 65.5. A Raptors offence that had been too reliant on the sublime gifts of Kawhi Leonard to create looks, suddenly had a high-IQ, playmaking centre who could reliably knock down threes. It didn’t hurt that he played disruptive, intuitive defence as well.
Plus, Gasol brought with him the mettle and wisdom gained from six playoff runs with the Grizzlies, multiple European Championships, and more than 15 years in the NBA and international trenches. “When you’re around him, you can feel it,” said Sergio Scariolo, the Raptors assistant coach and Gasol’s head coach with the Spanish national team. “When you have won so much, been to so many finals, been in so many do-or-die games, you feel comfortable in this situation. Very few of our players have done it as much as Marc. And he constantly helps his teammates. He’s always, always talking to them and keeping them calm or giving them advice.”
Even Gasol’s flaws are endearing. Toronto’s coaching staff spent a great deal of time trying to get him to quit being so damn selfless and cerebral. Early on in these playoffs, he would often turn down good shot opportunities from beyond the arc in order to create a higher-percentage look for a teammate. But the Raptors needed him taking those shots. “Sometimes we tell him, ‘Listen, you can take 10 threes a game,’” Scariolo said. “Maybe we’re exaggerating a little bit, but he could. He has great shooting ability. And this makes things easier for Kawhi and Pascal to drive. Because the paint is a little bit less full, right? A little bit more empty when they will respect his shot. And when they don’t respect it, he can knock them down.”
Gasol spent the days leading up to the Finals hearing about how he was going to be played off the floor like the other bulky, lumbering centres who’ve crossed the Warriors’ path. Then he provided one of his team’s most critical performances in Game 1. Not only because he scored 20 on 6-of-10 shooting, but on the defensive end, too, where he often locked down two areas at once, bothering Steph Curry on pick-and-rolls before motoring back to the paint to protect the rim. He’d gotten his hands on a game-high five deflections. “He’s so tough and so smart at the same time. When he’s getting those deflections and creating turnovers, they look random,” Scariolo said. “But they’re not.”
In general, the Raptors had made a statement in Game 1. That they belonged in the Finals, that they could weather Golden State’s storms, that they could knock off one of the best NBA teams ever assembled, that the franchise’s tortured history in series openers was in the past.
And yet, they didn’t like how they’d played. Golden State presented defensive coverages the Raptors had never seen before, particularly when the ball was in Leonard’s hands. Warriors defenders feigned switches before throwing an aggressive, all-out blitz at him, forcing Leonard away from the areas of the floor he likes to get to. And in response, Toronto’s outlets were all wrong; the offence’s spacing suffered; cutting opportunities weren’t taken.
Toronto’s supplementary pieces made a boatload of tough, contested shots, but that was no way to live — no way to win. Golden State’s defence had forced Toronto to take shots in the last six seconds of the shot clock 23 times. That the Raptors made 15 of them did little to pacify Nick Nurse as he watched the game back later that night. And the Raptors felt that as they endured one of their longest film sessions of the playoffs the morning after Game 1. “There was plenty on there that we need to do better,” Nurse said later, “if we want to win another game in this series.”
And not for nothing, the Warriors collectively expressed a self-assured calm despite dropping the game. The Raptors had played better, sure. But they hadn’t done anything that couldn’t be countered with a different scheme, a tweaked coverage, a little more effort. And now Golden State had a game’s worth of film on an unfamiliar opponent and two full days with which to digest it. The Raptors had no right to feel comfortable, and everyone on both sides knew it. “Yeah, we got the win — but we’ve got to play much better,” Fred VanVleet said. “We had too many breakdowns. Blown switches, blown communications, blown assignments. Careless turnovers. Any time you make those mistakes, when you blow a switch, they’re going to score. They’re going to hit an open three or get a layup at the rim. We’ve got to be better.”
It was a perfect prediction for what occurred during the third quarter of Game 2, with the Raptors holding onto a five-point halftime lead, thanks in no small part to another strong shooting night from VanVleet, who’d gone 5-of-8 in the first half. Toronto’s offence collapsed, turning the ball over four times in the first four minutes of the third quarter. Its defence hadn’t fared much better. A VanVleet three nearly halfway into the frame finally stopped the bleeding. But the Warriors had already gone up double-digits on an 18–0 run.
Holding the Warriors scoreless for five straight minutes on a run of their own in the fourth, the Raptors cut the deficit to two in the final minute. But that Golden State drought ended when Leonard sold out for a steal and ultimately watched the ball pass through his massive hands on its way to Shaun Livingston, who quickly found Andre Iguodala open beyond the arc.
The odds were in the Raptors’ favour. Iguodala is a career 33-per cent three-point shooter. Faced with a decision between staying with DeMarcus Cousins in the paint or racing out to contest, Gasol made the right one. But part of playing those percentages is the third of the time in which Iguodala drills it. Watching from the baseline, Serge Ibaka bent back at the waist and threw his hands on his head as the shot dropped to give Golden State a 109–104 lead with seven seconds left. Iguodala ran right to centre court and started mean-mugging. Gasol grabbed the ball angrily beneath the net and slammed it to the floor. Toronto didn’t score again.
The fact Gasol had made the right read didn’t make the loss any easier to stomach. And as he stood in the Raptors locker room not long after the game, running the play back in his head with the series now tied 1–1, he still wasn’t quite sure how he felt. “Leaving the basket wide-open underneath with Cousins, two guys were up top… I hesitated, you know? And he made a shot,” Gasol said. “Now, the game is over. It’s on to Game 3. Watch film. See the things that didn’t work for us defensively. See how they were getting so open on either shots or slips to the basket or a pass. You know — we’ve got to be better.”
A couple hours before the tipoff of Game 3, Nick Nurse pulled Kyle Lowry aside for a quick chat. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nurse often consults with his point guard before games — sees how he’s feeling, where his head’s at, what he’s thinking that night.
Lowry was coming off a disappointing Game 2. He hadn’t necessarily been bad, but he wasn’t in his usual rhythm, either. He’d picked up his third foul of the night early in the second quarter, and spent an ensuing timeout in an animated conversation with that night’s officiating crew chief, Scott Foster. With four minutes remaining, Foster called Lowry’s sixth foul.
Lowry had used 11 of his 12 available fouls in the first two games of the series, while shooting 6-of-20 from the floor. He was frustrated. He needed to be better. He was saying as much to Nurse when the Raptors coach noticed something scrawled on a nearby white board his coaching staff uses to chart out defensive assignments and key points for each night’s game. Three words, written in blue with stars drawn on either side: “Let it rip.” Nurse asked Lowry if he’d written it. “No,” Lowry replied. “But that’s what I’m thinking.”
Evidently, he wasn’t the only one. After Lowry began Game 3 driving and drawing a foul on Shaun Livingston, then hitting both his free throws to open the scoring and set the tone, the Raptors went on to become only the third team in history to shoot better than 50 per cent from the field, 40 per cent from distance, and 90 per cent from the line in a Finals game. While the hobbled Warriors, sitting out Klay Thompson with a hamstring injury, asked Steph Curry to take a third of their shots — he scored 47 points on 14-of-31 shooting — the Raptors spread the wealth. All five Toronto starters made at least 10 attempts and scored at least 17 points. Four of them had five or more rebounds. Four had at least four assists.
The dagger came midway through the fourth. But rather than a single back-breaking shot, it was a series of them. With 7:33 remaining, Lowry stepped back beyond the arc and nailed his fifth three of the night, running the Raptors tally to 105 points. Then he drove into the paint, shook Draymond Green with a hard pivot, and sunk a fadeaway from the free-throw line — 107. On the ensuing possession, a driving Lowry kicked to Kawhi Leonard, who was run off the line and settled for a pull-up — 109. Next time, Leonard took it right to the rim — 111. Moments later, Lowry again found Leonard, this time near the baseline with room to shoot — 113. The Raptors converted on five consecutive possessions while getting three misses, a block, and a turnover at the other end. The score was 113–97 in their favour with five minutes to play.
That’s about when Golden State fans started filing toward the exits. Those that remained did so in faint hope of a Warriors comeback that never even threatened. Oracle Arena was stunned. Warriors fans, so used to their team dominating in front of them over the prior four seasons (a span in which Golden State had gone 39–6 in home playoff games), had just watched their team thoroughly beaten wire-to-wire. The Warriors only led once — 5–4, a minute into the first quarter. “Toronto played an excellent game,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “They outplayed us. They deserved it.”
The narrative after the game focused less on Toronto’s on-court dominance than an ugly moment that happened on the sidelines. Early in the fourth, Lowry went barrelling after a loose ball and ended up in the second row of courtside seats. As he tried to pick himself up, a fan, later revealed to be Warriors minority owner Mark Stevens, shoved Lowry in the shoulder and repeatedly told him to, “Go f–k yourself.”
Lowry was, of course, incensed. He was still thinking about the interaction several possessions later. And his teammates could tell. Gasol had words with him. Green, Leonard and VanVleet, too. Come on, Kyle. You’ve got to let it go. We need you. And it was after that rallying around him that the Raptors’ dagger run began. “If it wasn’t in this situation, things may have been — they probably would have been done differently, handled differently by me,” Lowry said. “I was furious, I’m not going to lie .… But those guys were like, ‘Try to come back here. We need you to stay in this moment.’”
If the Raptors had a motto in these playoffs, and in this season, that was it: Stay in the moment. Leonard and Lowry must have averaged more than a dozen uses per press conference. And their teammates fell in lockstep behind them. “We haven’t gotten ahead of ourselves all playoffs, all year,” said Fred VanVleet. “And we’re not going to start now.”
On that same whiteboard where someone had scribbled “Let it rip” there were plenty of other messages. The Warriors rotation was ordered along the left side. In the middle, defensive coverages for various Golden State lineups. And on the right side, some basic philosophies of how the Raptors wanted to play:
Trust your talk
Trust the coverage
Trust each other
For the Raptors, that poise, that resilience, that calm, that trust — it was an identity. “I think we just have a bunch of guys that are in the moment, understanding that we’re just going to keep playing and keep working. It’s been like this all year, to be honest,” Lowry said. “Even in training camp, it wasn’t like, oh, talking trash. It’s like, ‘Let’s come in and get our work in. And boom, boom, boom — let’s get out of here. Let’s work and get going.’”
Kawhi Leonard got up from his seat and walked — head down, eyes trained just ahead of his white sneakers — out of the Raptors locker room past a series of black-and-white “WE THE NORTH” flags taped to the walls. He followed the black carpet of a wide, roped-off laneway that kept eager onlookers, photographers and stadium staff at bay. He hung a left and headed slowly down the long, dark tunnel cutting underneath the lower bowl stands at Oracle Arena. The music blaring from the stadium’s speaker system was faint at the top of the tunnel, growing louder and louder until Leonard emerged on the bright gold floor, the Warriors’ six championship banners hanging in the rafters above him. He paused for a beat to look around, taking in the scene about two hours prior to Game 4. Then he grabbed a ball, and edged the very tip of those white sneakers to the free-throw line. Time to warm up.
Leonard’s pre-game routine sees him take shots from all over the floor. That’s not unusual for such a versatile athlete. What is unusual is the fact that every shot he gets up might actually be used in a couple hours, when the baskets count. From the free-throw line, he goes right into a progression of post moves with Raptors assistant coach Jamaal Magloire leaning on his back, talking a little crap, contesting everything he puts up. Then it’s back to the free-throw line for a bit before shifting to mid-range shots. Leonard works on creating off the dribble — jab steps, quick lateral cuts, step-backs — and after another trip to the line, he heads beyond the arc and starts taking those step-backs from distance. He shoots moving to his left and his right, with Magloire lunging out to contest. Back to the free-throw line again. Then, it’s catch-and-shoot threes, starting in one corner and making his way around the arc. After one more trip to the line, he’s finally through. The whole process takes nearly half an hour.
Raptors staffers rave about Leonard’s work ethic, his approach to practices, film sessions, maintenance days — you know, all the fun stuff. It’s one of the biggest things the organization learned about him in his early months in Toronto. He doesn’t say much, but he sure does a lot. His work days are meticulous, purposeful, hyper-efficient. In the same way he doesn’t waste movements on the court, he doesn’t waste time off of it. For all the facetious observations made about Leonard being emotionless and intense, a robot, his routines and preparations can be downright, well, robotic. The structure and focus is important to him.
Leonard thinks deeply about his health and how best to preserve his exceptional strength and athleticism late into his career. It’s why he asked to be traded from San Antonio, where he felt pressure to play through injury and ultimately lost faith in the Spurs’ medical staff. It’s why load management became a thing, as Leonard worked with the Raptors to formulate a plan to best maintain his health through the regular season and playoffs. It’s why, during so many Raptors practices this season, while the rest of the team was on the floor running drills or scrimmages, Leonard was in a far corner of the gym, balancing on a medicine ball or completing range-of-motion exercises under the eye of Raptors director of sports science, Alex McKechnie.
Leonard’s on-court brilliance would seem impossible, imagined, if we hadn’t watched it night after night and then witnessed it suddenly power-up to a new, even more absurd level in the playoffs. If we hadn’t watched him drop 37 on Orlando; drain that three-pointer over Embiid in Game 4 against Philadelphia; hit a walk-off, series-winning buzzer-beater that inspired murals; play nearly a damn hour in double-OT of a must-win against the Bucks — if we hadn’t watched him construct the greatest individual playoff run since Michael Jordan.
In Game 3, he had one of the quietest 30-point efforts you’ll ever see. But that’s what makes Leonard so dangerous — the nights when he does it all in the background, leading his team with a 30-per cent usage rate but hardly standing out because his teammates still have the space to make so many winning plays.
Game 4 wasn’t one of those background performances, though. It was one of those nights when Leonard decides enough’s enough and, in the words of Fred VanVleet, drains “two big eff-you shots” to spark a rally. Leonard hit the Raptors’ only two threes through two quarters, part of a 14-point first-half effort that helped Toronto go into halftime down only four despite a tight, inefficient start from the rest of the team.
In the dressing room at half, the Raptors talked about the need to up their energy level. They talked about pace and moving the ball better — seven assists on 15 buckets wasn’t good enough. They talked about how important it was to throw the first punch in the second half. “We can’t come out with a lackadaisical approach,” was the message Norman Powell remembered. “We can’t feel our way into the half.”
For his part, Nick Nurse was pretty happy with the shots his players generated, and he was encouraged by the way they’d stood up to what Golden State threw at them. He also liked the defensive hustle that had limited the Warriors to 2-of-13 from deep. He just felt they could do a better job imposing their will. “Let’s up our effort a little bit,” Nurse told the room. “The offence is pretty good. Step into your shots and start making some more, which is going to help our defence.”
The crucial first punch came only 30 seconds into the third quarter. VanVleet dropped Leonard a little bounce pass on the run for a three. Bang. Eight seconds later, Leonard picked off a lazy entry pass and took off up-court, pulling up from the very same spot. Bang. “Kawhi’s two big three’s to start the half really, I thought, changed the whole feel of everybody,” Nurse said. “Everybody was like, ‘Okay, man. We know we’re here. Let’s go.’”
Leonard ended up with 17 in the quarter; the Raptors, 37. Marc Gasol hit a big three, VanVleet dished out five assists. Serge Ibaka entered with four-and-a-half minutes remaining in the quarter and exited 12 minutes of game time later after one of his most energetic, effective, and impactful shifts in quite some time — scoring 12 points and pulling down two boards. After the bumpy opening half, the Raptors ultimately breezed to another win, 105–92, to take a commanding 3–1 series lead.
After the buzzer, Leonard retraced his steps from earlier in the evening, head down, through that long dark tunnel and along that roped-off laneway. He looked exactly as he had when heading the other direction to warm up — quiet, poised, emotionless. It was a hallmark of Raptors victories throughout the playoffs. They never really celebrated. They never allowed themselves to enjoy it. The closest they came was when they won the Eastern Conference Finals, but even that post-game locker room was relatively subdued.
After Game 4, a win away from history, Lowry sat shirtless at his locker, thumbing through his phone, his feet submerged in a bucket of ice. VanVleet, a beige bandage covering the six stitches he received below his right eye after catching an elbow beneath the basket, FaceTimed with family while a Raptors trainer wrapped his hip: “Hey baby, I got elbowed right in the eye!” he said into the phone. Pascal Siakam sat nearby studying the stat sheet: “Damn, Serge had 20,” he told anyone listening.
There was no music, no yelling, no jokes. Just a bunch of professionals deadly serious about their craft who knew the job wasn’t done. And that focus started with Leonard. He sat at his locker, his knees wrapped heavily with ice, speaking softly with Raptors assistant coach Jeremy Castleberry, who he’s known since high school. He wore black flip-flops, grey shorts with black compression shorts underneath, and nothing else. Near his feet sat a dark-red smoothie he’d barely touched. During a pause in conversation, he leaned back, rubbed his hands across his cornrows, and took a quiet breath.
Really, he didn’t look much different from the way he had post-game during the first week of the season in October; or in February, during its dog days; or April, as the Raptors began their playoff run. Just as he rarely speaks in more than a murmur, Leonard seldom looks anything but composed in the moments after a game. In thrilling wins and demoralizing losses. In blowouts and tense contests. In his first of the season or his 82nd, as Game 4 was.
A lot of people in the Raptors organization like to talk about how Leonard sets the tone for the team, how his Zenlike approach has spread to his teammates. They all find it fascinating. How such a killer can be so poised. “For me, the biggest thing is just the way he’s able to handle situations,” Siakam said. “Like, I know we always talk about it and it seems cliché, but he is just even-keeled and always the same person. No matter if you’re winning or losing or whatever the case might be, he always has that, just that swag — that everything is going to be okay. You can always see in his eyes that at any given time, he can take over.”
About 36 hours prior to Game 5, the Raptors gathered at Scotiabank Arena to produce some theatre: All 15 players on the floor for 30 minutes, shooting at two baskets; coaches and training staff watching from centre court; the more than 500 credentialed media in attendance at these NBA Finals herded to one side of the floor to observe. Less an actual practice than a demonstration, with little purpose beyond generating B-roll footage for TV broadcasts.
Kyle Lowry played most of the postseason with a severely injured left thumb that he’d have numbed and heavily wrapped prior to games. There wasn’t much sense in putting added stress on it for a glorified photo op. So, while his teammates went through the motions, he walked around centre court, dribbling a ball and carrying on a conversation with Raptors assistant coach Phil Handy. They talked about mindset, about staying locked in. About the pressure and anxiety of being on this stage. About tuning out all the noise. And they talked about taking a second to appreciate how far they’ve come. “You know, Kyle’s been in this league for a long time,” Handy said later. “It took a while for him to get to this moment. And even though he’s one of the best at staying locked — never getting too high, never too low — sometimes you forget to enjoy it. So, we talked about just, man, we’re in the Finals, we have an opportunity to do something golden for this city, this country, this organization. Let’s stay balanced, but let’s also enjoy the moment.”
And did Game 5 ever have some moments. Off the court, the ludicrous, whirlwind, back-and-forth opening half featured a hair-raising, arena-wide rendition of Canada’s national anthem and thunderous standing ovations for Toronto sports icons Vince Carter and Jose Bautista. And on it, there was the macabre sight of Warriors superstar Kevin Durant, playing for the first time in a month, crumbling to the floor after rupturing his Achilles trying to drive past Serge Ibaka on it. With the Warriors ahead, 62–56, to start the second half, there was reason to wonder how much gas anyone would have left. Kawhi Leonard was about to provide the answer.
You could call his fourth-quarter run a takeover if that weren’t such a gross understatement. Leonard was righteous. Down 92–89 with just under seven minutes to play, he took three consecutive shots, dished out an assist, then took five more. He made five of those eight attempts and pulled down three boards in three minutes to give the Raptors a six-point lead with 3:28 remaining. In the back hallways of Scotiabank Arena, boxes of championship hats and shirts were being wheeled towards the court. Champagne was on ice. The Larry O’Brien Trophy was being prepared. Fans across the country were ready to erupt.
But it wasn’t to be. The Raptors scored only once in those final three-and-a-half minutes — when Lowry’s attempt on a drive was goaltended at the rim — while the Warriors got massive threes from Klay Thompson, Steph Curry and Thompson again. Lowry had a chance to hit the shot of his life at the buzzer, pulling up from the corner for a three. But Draymond Green shifted off bottling up Marc Gasol in the paint to leap out and get just enough of his fingerprints on the ball to alter the shot, which ultimately collided with the side of the backboard. “It felt great out of my hand,” Lowry said later that night.
As the buzzer sounded and Golden State escaped with the 106–105 win, the air was let out of the entire building, save for a bubble around the Warriors bench, which erupted. Curry circled the floor with an arm in the air, looking for teammates to hug and chest bump. Green paced around pumping his fist. Somehow, the dynastic Warriors had become the underdogs scrapping and fighting their way to an inspiring triumph. And the upstart Raptors were favourites who had just blown a rare opportunity. There was a weight to Toronto’s disappointment beyond losing by only a point.
In the Raptors dressing room immediately after the defeat, the coaching staff showed the team the final play of the game, which had generated a decent look but wasn’t executed with the precision needed. The spacing was off. Lowry and Gasol had Green in a 2-on-1, but failed to exploit it, allowing Green to scrape Lowry’s attempt. “We looked at the last clip,” said Danny Green, “but it shouldn’t come down to the last clip.”
It was Leonard and Green, the veterans of multiple San Antonio Spurs playoff runs, who spoke up. Leonard talked to his teammates about the need to stay confident, emphasizing that the Raptors had fought through adversity before and could do so again. Green noted how much effort the Raptors put into Game 5, and how much more they’d need to put into Game 6 in Oakland, the last to ever be played at Oracle Arena. How the important thing now was to overcome the disappointment, emotion and fatigue, and not take that energy with them to the west coast. “Not to let this game drain us or defeat us,” Green said. “We have opportunities to still make some special things happen. We’ve just got to make it happen. We can’t just sit back and expect them to happen.”
Still, a one-point loss leaves plenty to dwell on. The difference was one missed free throw, of which the Raptors had six, or a toe on the line for just one of Golden State’s 20 three-pointers. Leonard sat at his locker, shirtless, bunched-up socks in his lap, his bare feet resting on a pile of cut-away ankle tape, for quite some time after the game. He stared at a stat sheet, and conferenced with his old college teammate Jeremy Castleberry about just what had gone wrong. It was his first off-night of the series. The label was hard to apply given he scored 26 points with 12 rebounds and nearly won the damn thing himself in the fourth. But he’d shot 9-of-24, one of his least efficient efforts of the playoffs and one that fell well short of the exceptionally high standards he sets for himself.
At the other side of the room, Lowry returned from the shower to find Handy sitting in Jordan Loyd’s neighbouring locker waiting with a laptop on his knees. As the point guard dressed, Handy played a clip for him over and over, pointing things out. Lowry shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, and the two talked for a while, just as they had at midcourt the day prior.
You can bet Handy delivered a different version of the same message from 36 hours earlier: There isn’t much sense in dwelling on these things. Move on, turn the page, live in the moment and enjoy it if you can. But you can also bet Lowry was still thinking about the opportunities he had to end the game — and the series — with a Raptors win. Thinking about how iconic a moment that final three would’ve been. And how Green got just enough skin on the ball to take it all away.
Atop every page of every scouting report the Toronto Raptors coaching staff handed their players during the NBA Finals was the same message in big, capital letters: “EXPECT TO WIN.” A small thing, sure, but part of the bigger ethos each member of the organization carried throughout the playoffs. They weren’t here just to compete.
Masai Ujiri had harped about the importance of winning for years. He reinforced it when the Raptors captured the Eastern Conference — that they’d come this far to win, and win in Toronto. It was the last word the players said to one another every night before they took the floor, huddling together outside their locker room, heads bowed, feet bouncing, before breaking apart with an emphatic, “Winnnn!”
And so, the Raptors locker room ahead of Game 6 remained as focused and confident as ever. About an hour prior to tipoff, players were running through their usual routines. Serge Ibaka lay flat on his stomach in front of his locker, foam-rolling his hips and quads. Pascal Siakam laced up his sneakers and pulled a white headband on, before heading off to take his pre-game shots. Norman Powell picked at a plate of fruit; Kawhi Leonard worked through some exercises with a thick, green band wrapped around his legs; Jordan Loyd and Eric Moreland talked quietly at their lockers. You can debate how much of a role mindset plays in winning. But you can’t argue that the Raptors had the wrong one. “This is a strong-minded, tough-ass group of guys. It really is,” Nick Nurse said shortly before tipoff. “And I’m looking forward to watching them play tonight.”
A couple hours later, on the court at a raucous Oracle Arena, Nurse squatted in front of the scorer’s table, his grey suit pants stretched tight at the knees. Like his players’ locker room routines, it was a familiar pose — maybe an unconscious way of coping with stress; maybe a conscious and considerate gesture to the spectators behind him. But there was no game action to see. The halftime buzzer had sounded a good 30 seconds earlier, and Nurse was still crouched, looking out at the floor, as players from both teams filtered into the tunnel. He was probably trying to process the unbelievable theatre he’d just witnessed.
The lead had changed 14 times; Toronto and Golden State had already combined for 16 turnovers; and Kyle Lowry had come out like a man possessed, pouring in 21 points over a prolific 22 first-half minutes. The sheer pace of the game was breathtaking. The players had to be gassed. But it’s a privilege to still be playing in mid-June, when most of your peers have been on vacation for two months. It’s a rare honour to be so exhausted — to be asked to give everything you have, dig back down, and give even more. As he spoke to his team at halftime, Nurse stressed persistence. “You guys know what it is, men. Come on, come on,” he implored, clapping his hands. “Twenty-four more minutes, men. Everything we got. Everything we got. Let’s go.”
Nearly 10 minutes into those 24, Warriors swingman Klay Thompson, who had been everywhere in the game, scoring 28 points on only 12 field-goal attempts, sprinted out in transition off a live-ball turnover. Steph Curry found him in full stride, and Thompson went straight to the rim with Danny Green contesting from behind. Everything Thompson had done that night was so perfect and smooth; his landing was anything but, as all his weight came down on his left foot, forcing his knee inward at an awful angle and tearing his ACL. Everyone on the floor knew it was bad. Curry walked to the opposite baseline and sat down with his arms around his knees, hanging his head. After some time, Thompson was helped up and off the floor, and Curry was, too, by Lowry, who pulled him up and patted him on the back as he made his way slowly back to the Golden State bench.
Thompson returned to shoot two free throws on one leg, as the crowd shook Oracle Arena to its foundation. He made both, of course. But the Warriors would have to go on without him. And the Raptors knew they had an opportunity to turn out the lights. “It was so unfortunate for him to get hurt,” Fred VanVleet said. “But we wanted to take advantage and not let Steph beat us by himself.”
In the fourth quarter, the Raptors threw two, sometimes three, bodies at Curry every time he touched the ball, blitzing and trapping so aggressively that Curry’s teammates were often left wide-open. Which was the plan. Meanwhile, the Warriors did the same with Leonard, who was already operating on reserve fuel. Game 6 would come down to the supporting casts; to whichever team had players orbiting around its stars who were most capable of stepping up.
Players like Pascal Siakam. The NBA’s breakout star had such a rough go defensively in Game 5 that Nurse benched him early in the fourth quarter. Two days later, in Oakland for Game 6, Siakam and his brother, Christian, had a long talk. The brothers live together, and Christian had been there every step of these playoffs. He knew Pascal better than anyone — when his head was on straight and when he needed to be delivered a message. Christian felt this was the time to remind him why he plays the game. He spoke about their late father, Tchamo, who dreamed one of his four sons would reach the NBA and win a championship, and in whose memory Siakam sometimes writes “RIP DAD” with a heart on his sneakers. They talked about all the work Siakam put in to get here, all those 6 a.m. summer arrivals at the gym — how it was all for this moment. “It was really emotional,” Christian said. “And at the end, he told me, ‘Man, I love you, bro. I got this one.’”
Not long ago, Siakam was playing for a different title entirely — an NBA G-League championship with Raptors 905. Siakam was electric in that 2017 series; they named him MVP. The runner-up would have been his point guard, a gutsy, undrafted underdog with a goatee named Fred VanVleet. Now, two years later, in a Game 6 fourth quarter that saw Leonard, Gasol and Green fail to make a bucket, and Lowry hit only one, those two former G-League teammates were doing it again.
After snapping out of an 0-of-12 skid from beyond the arc with a trio of threes in the first half, Siakam scored five of his team-high 26 points in the fourth. VanVleet had a dozen points in the quarter himself, including some of the biggest of the night. With four minutes remaining in a tie game, he caught Draymond Green and Quinn Cook miscommunicating on a switch, stepped back, pulled up and coldly dropped his fifth three to give Toronto its 11th lead of the game. This one wouldn’t be surrendered. Siakam — playing his 46th minute after checking in for the beginning of the second quarter and never checking out — finished a euro-step around Green, a one-time Defensive Player of the Year, to effectively ice the game with 30 seconds remaining. VanVleet finished with 22 points off the bench; Curry, 21. The Raptors had an NBA title, and both Siakam and VanVleet had performances, playoffs, names Raptors fans will never forget.
After the buzzer, VanVleet buried his head in Siakam’s chest as they hugged. “None of our guys, other than Kawhi, are in that big boy club or the fan boy club of the NBA. We got guys who had to get it the long way, who had to get it out of the mud, who had to get it against the grain,” VanVleet said. “And we got a team full of them coming from all different places, all walks of life, all different life stories to get to this moment. But we got some talent — we got some talent for sure.”
Geez,” Nick Nurse said as he arrived for his post-game press conference drenched head-to-toe, “they’ve got a lot of bottles of champagne in there.”
A full skid, in fact. Cases of Gruet Cuvée 89 Brut and Rosé — plus, some nicer bottles sent by Drake that no one could remember the name of. Toronto went through it all, setting an enthusiastic precedent for whichever Raptors team comes next. The dressing room floor was an inch deep in bubbly and beer, a minefield of empty bottles and cans. The plastic sheeting quickly hung up around the room was inadequate at best. No one seemed to mind.
Kyle Lowry went on a quick spraying spree then left for interviews, photographs and obligations, along with Leonard, who was dancing in the middle of the room, if you can believe it. Chris Boucher had a Canadian flag draped over his shoulders; Siakam carried Cameroon’s green, red, and yellow; Ujiri, the green and white bands of Nigeria. Norman Powell sang “O Canada” with a pair of ski goggles resting on his forehead. Marc Gasol and Malcolm Miller found the beers and started throwing them back. Jeremy Lin got involved early, was quickly soaked, then retreated to a back room to spend time with his mom. Serge Ibaka FaceTimed Drake, and told him to get Toronto ready because the Raptors were coming home. The training and medical staff held a party within the party, dousing each other and singing. The assistant coaches had it the worst, targeted over and over by various players appreciative of their unsung efforts. Siakam found his way to the middle of the room and danced while pouring champagne over his own head as Raptors staffers chanted, “M-I-P! M-I-P!” He took a swig and, evidently not a fan of rosé, immediately spat it out. “Oh my god,” he said, wiping his face. “What is this?”
Behind Siakam, Masai Ujiri stood and watched by himself. He’d done the same thing after Game 4 in Oakland, when Raptors fans streamed down from the stands to stage a hostile takeover of one corner of Oracle Arena. Now, he was watching a much smaller crowd, but just as boisterous. A Raptors championship towel hung around his neck, soaking up any champagne that didn’t run down his back. “Everything came together, everybody working together,” Ujiri said of the collective effort that earned the title. “And that’s not bullshit we’re talking here.”
The Raptors president is inherently a builder, an optimist. Even in the immediate aftermath of his greatest accomplishment in basketball, he was already thinking about the future. He remembered a conversation he’d had with Nurse early in the Finals, when the first-year head coach told him the reason Golden State was so good, so well drilled, was because of their playoff experience — spending year after year focusing on the most minute particulars and studying opponents closer than at any other time. “The playoffs, it’s so detailed, everybody’s so attentive,” Ujiri said. “That’s going to carry over to next season.”
Dan Tolzman, the Raptors assistant general manager, can appreciate that. He stood not far from Ujiri watching some of the players he’d seen grow for years live out their wildest dream. Tolzman was the general manager of that Raptors 905 team that won a G-League title with Siakam and VanVleet leading the way. He scouted, developed and believed in those two before anyone knew who they were. Before they were hitting huge three-pointers in the NBA Finals. Before they were hugging each other, spraying champagne. Before they were champions. The Raptors are the first NBA team to win a title without a lottery pick on their roster. Tolzman thought that said it all. “If you find the right kind of guys, and they come together, and they work their asses off,” he said, “good things happen. And this is the result.”
And what a result it was. Nearly a quarter century into the strange, potholed and utterly unique history of this franchise, the Toronto Raptors are NBA champions. As he watched the madness around him, Embry, the trailblazer, the living icon, the soul of the organization, took another glance at that watch on his wrist. Down to 75 beats-per-minute now.
Embry was there for 22- and 23-win seasons. The trade demands, draft busts, coaches come and gone. The tear-downs, rebuilds, playoff disappointments. His feet touched every brick on that road, and he saw where it led. “This is what you do it for,” he said, his soft, unmistakable voice rumbling beneath the chaos. “All the trials, tribulations you go through over the years to get here — it’s well worth it now.”
Designed by Sasha Barkans. Edited by Evan Rosser.
Inside the historic, controversial, mind-blowing 2019 Cup Final
On the ground, in the dressing rooms — even spending a night at the family home — as the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins write strange, bruising NHL history.