As the celebration in the Six dies down, and the dust begins to settle, we can now reflect on the journey and significance of the Toronto Raptors first NBA Championship win. We are all know how the final chapter of the 2018-19 NBA season ends, with Kawhi “I’m a Fun Guy” Leonard holding the Larry O’Brien trophy over his head. But lets take a trip back in time to understand how all of this became possible.
May 11th, 2018: Raptors Fire Coach of the Year Dwane Casey
Talk about a rough day at the office as Dwane Casey was fired days after being named coach of the year for the 2017-18 NBA season. Casey is the all-time winnings coach in Raptors history with a 320-238 record including three consecutive 50 win seasons. Casey did everything right in his 7-year-tenure as Raptors coach, everything except defeat LeBron James in the playoffs. Every time they matched up in the playoffs, James ran through the 50 win team as if it were an AAU team. The final straw in Casey losing his job was being swept in the 2018 playoffs by none other than LeBron James. Although there was clear reason to move on from Casey, as he failed to take the team to the next level, it is a tough decision to fire a man after being voted the best coach in the league. But the Raptors did what they felt was right, and hired first time head coach Nick Nurse.
Nick Nurse would go on and leave his imprint on the team. Developing Pascal Siakam, getting the most out of role players like Fred Van Fleet, Norman Powell, and Serge Ibaka.
July 18th, 2018- Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green Traded to Toronto For DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 First Round Pick
In what can only be described as a gutsy, franchise changing decision by Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri. Ujiri decided to pull the plug on franchise player DeMar DeRozan, who was a favorite amongst teammates and fans, and send him to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard who gave no reassurance that he would sign long term. It was a huge risk for the Raptors organization considering DeRozan was drafted, developed, and did not walk out on the franchise the first chance he got like previous Raptors greats (Carter, Bosh) did. In fact DeRozan loved the city and signed a 5 year max contract to remain a Raptor. But Ujiri seen an opportunity to get better, and took it, even it meant just one year of Leonard. Safe to say the deal worked out for Ujiri and the Raptors.
The Birth of Kawhi “I’m a Fun Guy” Leonard
On media day before the quick off of the NBA regular season, Kawhi Leonard gifted us with this gem.
September 2018: Kawhi Leonard gets the first laugh of the NBA season
June 2019: Kawhi Leonard gets the last laugh of the NBA season pic.twitter.com/AxEkyfLsct
— Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) June 14, 2019
At this press conference, Kawhi not only gifted us with this robotic laugh, but he also introduced us to his infamous line “I’m a fun guy,” in response to the Toronto media who asked him to describe himself. Obviously this has no significance to the Raptors going on to win the Finals, but it is pure gold for us in the world of social media.
The Toronto Raptors and Leonard agreed on a perfect plan to ensure they get a healthy Leonard for when it really matters, the NBA Playoffs. They allowed Leonard to rest for “load management” over the course of the regular season, resulting in Leonard playing just 60 of the 82 regular season games. Leonard stayed away from playing back to back nights and sat out games in which the Raptors could win without him. The plan worked as the Raptors thrived with and without Leonard in the regular season on their way to 58 wins, good enough for the second best record in the NBA. Then once the playoffs tipped off, Leonard went on a historic run, a run that would be unlikely without the load management tactic they took throughout the regular season.
Trading Jonas Valanciunas for Marc Gasol
Masai Ujiri showed his brilliance once again at the trade deadline when he acquired veteran Marc Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies for Jonas Valanciunas. The acquisition of Gasol proved to be vital come playoff time, as his defense, floor spacing ability, and overall experience helped the Raptors win big games. Nick Nurse deserves credit for this too, as he was able to implement Gasol in quite effortlessly without disrupting the rest of the team’s chemistry.
Kawhi Leonard’s Historic Playoff Run
Saying Kawhi Leonard had a historic playoff run is not an overstatement. He led all players in total points(732), rebounds (218) and steals(40). He becomes the second player ever to complete that feat, the other player to do so is Larry Bird in 1984. His 732 playoff points ranks third most ever, behind Lebron James in 2018 and Michael Jordan in 1992. That is some elite company to be in.
Game 7 Buzzer Beater
If there is a single scene that will be remembered from the 2019 NBA Playoffs, it will be Leonard raising up over the 6’10 Ben Simmons and 7’1 Joel Embiid in the corner to drain the Game 7 game winner. I mean is there anything that can top that moment? Every little kid who ever picks dup a basketball dreamed of this scenario, Game 7 counting down the finals seconds: 5,4,3,2,1, buzzer sounds, BANG! Well Leonard became the first to live that dream and make it a reality.
🚨 THE SHOT. THE BOUNCE. THE WIN. 🚨
— NBA (@NBA) May 13, 2019
Slaying the Greek Freak and the 1 Seed Milwaukee Bucks
After falling down 0-2 to MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and the 60 win Milwaukee Bucks, everyone hopped off the Raptors bandwagon. The narrative of the Raptors turning into Barney in the playoffs had resurfaced, and it was a fate of complete that the Bucks would seem roll their way to the NBA Finals. Well this was a different Raptors team from those of the past as something clicked and the Raptors went on to win the next four games in convincing fashion. Kawhi Leonard took the challenge of slowing down the Greek Freak, and he succeeded. When guarded by Leonard, Antetokounmpo struggled. Leonard limited Antetokounmpo’s offense, which allowed the rest of the Toronto defense to smother and harass the Bucks great 3 point shooters. It turned out to be the turning point of the series, and allowed the Raptors to reach their first NBA Finals in franchise history.
Matching up with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, a team that had been there for the past 5 seasons, compared to the Raptors who have never been there, the Raptors were underdogs. Many believed the Warriors experience would outweigh the Durant injury, or at least buy the Warriors some time until they got KD back later in the series. But the Raptors walked into the Fianls with confidence that they’re the team to beat.
Game 1 in Toronto was all Raptors as they won 118-109. The atmosphere was insane, all of Canada was behind the Raptors, and to be honest, most of the United States as well. It was the Pascal Siakam game where he introduced himself to every casual NBA fan. Siakam dropped 32 points in his first finals game of his early career. The veteran Marc Gasol also added 20 big points in what was also his first NBA Finals game.
In Game 2 the Raptors got hitting the mouth by the defending champion Warriors, as lost the game and homecourt advantage. However the Raptors were not phased one bit as they made their way to Oracle arena for games 3 and 4 and outplayed the champions on their home court. They survived Stephen Curry’s 47 point scoring outburst for the Game 3 win, taking back the home court advantage which they relinquished with their game 2 loss. The Raptors would go on to do the same in Game 4 where they beat the Warriors for a second consecutive game at Oracle, something that had not been accomplished by a visiting team in the Steve Kerr era.
Game 5 in Toronto was when Kevin Durant returned, in an attempt to help bring the Warriors back from a 3-1 deficit. After just 12 minutes of playing time, Durant went down with the torn Achilles. It is a real shame as a healthy Durant would have had a say in how the outcome of this series would have played out, and on a bigger scale how it will affect Durant’s career going forward. The Durant spark did help the Warriors live to fight another day, but in hind sight it was not worth it.
Game 6, the final game at Oracle Arena, was definitely the best game of the series. The rollercoaster of emotions from it being the last game at Oracle, to Lowry starting the game on an 11 point outburst, to Klay Thompson dropping 30 just midway through the 3rd quarter, up until the fateful moment. Thompson rises up for the fast break dunk, landing awkwardly after a foul, and tearing his ACL on the landing. Thompson was on his way to adding yet another classic to his “Game 6 Klay” portfolio, but it just wasn’t meant to be this year for Thompson and the Warriors. Danny Green’s turnover in the final seconds set up the chance for Steph Curry to be the hero as he got a decent look at a three point shot that would have given the Warriors the lead, but it clanked off back iron, and the Warriors hopes had died.
As for Toronto the celebration of their first NBA Championship win began on the hardwood at Oracle in Oakland California, and ended across the border in the Six, led by none other than Toronto’s very own Drake. Leonard was named Finals MVP, but it clearly didn’t mean much as he left it at the press conference podium and even gave it to Kyle Lowry to hold during their interview.
The Role Players Need Love Too
Kawhi Leonard’s playoff run was historic, but there is no doubt that he would not have gotten very far without his supporting cast. Name a guy in the rotation and they had an imprint on this playoff run, in particular the NBA Fianls.
Kyle Lowry took a lot of heat for his potential game winning shot in Game 5 ending up behind the backboard. But Lowry redeemed himself in the close out Game 6. He sparked the Raptors with 15 first quarter points, eventually ending up with 25 for the game. Lowry, the longest tenured Raptor, finally got past his years of shortcomings in the playoffs, and deserved every second of this championship, and his contributions can’t be ignored.
Fred Van Fleet, the undrafted pointguard was huge for the Raptors in the Finals. Van Fleet was often matched up with Steph Curry, and held his own throughout, and occasionally outshining the 2x MVP. Van Fleet was a thorn in Curry’s side all series, chasing Curry around screens, running him off the 3-point line. Oh and on the other end of the floor, Van Fleet was hitting un real rainbow shots, often in crunch time. His 16 points in Game 6 went a long way to the Raptors closing out the Warriors. He even had the battle scars and tooth to remind him of his efforts.
The aforementioned Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka created matchup problems all series for the Warriors. Gasol’s height and floor spacing gave DeMarcus Cousins and Kevon Looney nightmares, while Serge Ibaka turned back the clock to his OKC Thunder days on multiple occasions. One game Ibaka had 6 blocks, and in another the tallied 20 points.
It would also be silly to fail to include Danny Green on this list as well. green did not have the best series, and almost blew game 6, but he did have a vintage performance in Game 3. Green was lights pout from three, and dropped 18 points in the Game 3 win.
Some Fun Facts
- There were zero players on the team that were selected in the draft lottery (Top 14 picks of a draft)
- Kawhi Leonard became the 3rd player to win a Fianls MVP for two different teams, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbr (Bucks and Lakers) and Lebron James (Heat and Cavs)
- Kyle Lowry was the first player to raise the Larry O’Brian Trophy and caught the last shot by Steph Curry so he could hold onto the game ball.
- Nick Nurse becomes the 9th head coach to win a NBA Championship in his rookie year as a head coach.