From league afterthought and undisputed laughing stock to NBA champions.
The Toronto Raptors‘ quarter-century journey to a title has certainly been eventful — and most definitely worth the wait.
When the history books tell the story of this time in basketball, it will show that the mighty Golden State Warriors dynasty fell at the hands of Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors (with maybe a little help from some truly horrid luck).
Leonard has been brilliant throughout the playoffs — in fact, even better than advertised when the Raptors acquired the former San Antonio Spur last summer with the hopes of a title run like this — and justifiably won the second Finals MVP award of his career as the 27 year-old looks poised to carry on this chapter as the NBA’s alpha dog.
But the Raps championship came from the efforts and talents of more than just one player. On Thursday, Kyle Lowry set the tone early and Fred VanVleet came through in the clutch time and again. Pascal Siakam bounced back from a downer Game 5 to hit the most clutch free throw in team history, while veterans Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and others chipped in in a big way. Coach Nick Nurse wasn’t afraid to make bold adjustments, while the team Masai Ujiri assembled believed, like him, that Toronto had what it took to win it all, and that the Raptors were an afterthought no more.
Much will be written about last night, and much already has, but let’s take a moment and look at what the out-of-market media are saying about the Raptors after the team secured its first-ever NBA title (Check back throughout the day as this is updated):
Impossible? Obviously not. Improbable? Hell yeah, says ESPN’s Zach Lowe, who charts the Raptors’ wild ride back to when Masai Ujiri traded Rudy Gay to Sacramento. That trade, intended as a salary dump, ended up turning the Raps into a playoff team and the club hasn’t looked back since as so many unexpected things have had to go right from that point until Thursday, where a roster featuring zero top-10 picks are champs:
…The Raptors traded Gay (and five months earlier, former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani) to open a path toward a total rebuild. It helped that Andrew Wiggins, then considered the greatest Canadian prospect ever, loomed as the prize atop the 2014 draft.
Kyle Lowry would go next — probably to the always-thirsty New York Knicks. The deal died just before the finish line. Meanwhile, the Raptors discovered the Gay trade had supplied them with a viable bench in Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes.
They started winning. They kept winning.
“You can sink and drown, or you can float,” DeMar DeRozan told ESPN three weeks after the Gay deal. “And we out here like Michael Phelps.”
Most championship teams have clear through lines that trace their journey to the top: They draft a foundational player that defines everything that comes next, or acquire one who agrees before stepping in the door to stay for a long time.
The Raptors have neither. There is no apparent modern precedent for a team trading for its only top-five player in a walk year — without free agency matching rights, without signing said player to an extension as part of the trade — and having that player lead the team to a title that same season. Toronto might be the most unconventionally constructed championship team in basketball history, and its six-game win over the Golden State Warriors has insiders across the league asking: Is there anything we can learn? Can we replicate what Toronto just did?
Noted Raptor hater (and former Raptor slayer) Paul Pierce takes a moment to appreciate what we all just saw:
One talking point you’re bound to hear a lot Friday will be that the Raptors’ title should be accompanied by a large asterisk given the injury blows to Warriors stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, both of whom torched Toronto when they were on the court.
Nonsense, writes Chris Herring, who explains why the Raptors deserve full credit for what they accomplished Thursday night:
No one in their right mind would ignore the reality of those brutal injuries, or the effect they had on what could have been an even more competitive series. But focusing too much on those issues arguably takes away from something that became clear about Toronto this season: The Raptors regularly took — and more often than not, capitalized on — calculated risks all year long. Those wise gambles played a key role in their success, both during the finals, and prior to it.
Pay close attention, and you’ll notice that Toronto coach Nick Nurse experiments with several things just enough1 to engineer an advantage for his team. He illustrated a willingness to try, more than once, some rare defenses that are seen more at the middle-school level than in the NBA. The 51-year-old, who had coached almost everywhere before this, found success toward the end of Game 2 when he sent his team out to contain Stephen Curry with a box-and-one after Thompson went down that night. Using that look — and holding Curry scoreless with it in Game 2 — helped the Raptors feel comfortable tightening the screws on Curry with the same defensive scheme in Game 6, after Thompson was forced to exit again.
Beyond that, Nurse opted to tweak his second-half starting lineup in Game 3 to include Fred VanVleet over Danny Green, a choice Nurse made even though Green had hit three triples in the first half. The third-period shift was one he stuck with the rest of the series, feeling that VanVleet’s ball-handling and stingy perimeter D on Curry was useful to have on the floor to begin the half.
…The Raptors were still incredibly fortunate in plenty of ways throughout this run. The absences of Durant and Thompson, for instance, were the reason Nurse could deploy such aggressive zone-hybrids on Curry, knowing that no other scoring threat would take advantage. We wrote about the abundance of fortunate bounces on the rim the Raptors have had during the playoffs, and Kyle Lowry — who was dominant Thursday — scored a key basket late that seemed to fit that profile.
The headline speaks the truth, and Chris Thompson’s story recaps another emotional nail-biter while shining a light on the “genuinely spectacular” play of Fred VanVleet and others:
The Toronto Raptors, of all teams, are your new NBA champions, after pulling out a 114–110 win in Oakland in Thursday night’s Game 6. It wasn’t necessarily a series that will be remembered for its aesthetic beauty, but in the end the Raptors earned their first title with six games of incredibly suffocating defense, and by winning all three games played in Oracle Arena, historically one of the toughest road venues in the league.
…That was a moment when it started to seem very real, that the Raptors—the Toronto Raptors!—were the team not just benefiting from injury luck but creating enough luck of their own to knock out the unbeatable Warriors and win the championship. That surreal moment was soon followed by an all-too-familiar moment when it suddenly seemed very possible that the Raptors would Raptor the hell out of this thing and choke it away.
…There were a lot of Raptors heroes in this series. Kawhi Leonard was of course dominant, but VanVleet’s defense on Curry was genuinely spectacular, perhaps the best we’ve ever seen against Curry across a playoff series. Siakam made a huge bucket down the stretch by beating Green straight-up, and appears to be headed for superstardom. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka split up the center duties and spaced the floor and protected the paint. And Kyle Lowry, fittingly, led the Raptors in points, assists, steals, and plus-minus in a masterful and clutch Game 6 performance.
The sentiment of this headline, from Dan Wolken’s post-game column, will be echoed several times as we attempt to write the history of the 2019 Finals (something tells me it will be a far greater narrative on the other side of the border — Raptorland is too busy celebrating):
…Up close, it looked and felt like every other title that has ever been won. The Raptors will get their parade through the streets of Toronto, rings will be passed out to long-deserving players like Marc Gasol, and the NBA record book will forever call them champions for the 2018-19 season.
There will be no asterisk attached to the Raptors, nor should there be one. The NBA Finals turned into a war of attrition, and they were the team left standing after six games, beating the Golden State Warriors 114-110 at Oracle Arena.
But outside of Canada, where they will rightfully celebrate this as one of the greatest sports moments in a nation’s history, this has to go down as one of the saddest finals we’ve ever seen. Because of what it could have been. Because of the cost to ligaments and tendons that left us cringing at the sight of Kevin Durant grabbing at his Achilles on Monday night and Klay Thompson holding his knee on Thursday.
…the fact this series was decided largely on injuries is unfortunate because it had the potential to be so much more. There were moments when we saw it — the first quarter of Game 5 when Durant valiantly came back from his calf injury and was drilling threes like he hadn’t been out a month, the entire first half of Game 6 when the teams were throwing haymakers at each other. In those stretches, the basketball was pulsating and beautiful and bringing out the very best of Curry and Thompson as well as Kawhi Leonard and the super-clutch Fred VanVleet.
And if there’d been a Game 7 with a healthy Thompson and momentum and the Raptors starting to lose some belief, this was destined to be the coin flip of all coin flips. It could have been a classic.
As for Mr. Bayless, one of the few positives of this magical playoff run coming to an end for the Raps is that I’ll no longer have any reason to comb through this guy’s nonsense: