Raptors Are NBA Champions!
Source: @Kyle_Lowery7 via Instagram
I wanted to wait a bit and process the monumental moment that was the Toronto Raptors dethroning the Golden State as champions, and the parade yesterday proved how much this team meant to the city.
Toronto for most of the series was in control snagging game 1 and taking a 3-1 series lead before clinching the Larry O' Brien trophy in game 6.To be fair the Raptors weren't playing a healthy Warriors team. Klay Thompson missed game 3 and missed most of the second half of game 6 due to an ACL tear after landing awkwardly. Kevon Looney played with a broken Collarbone for most of the series. Their superstar Kevin Durant missed the Western Conference finals against Portland and the first four games of the NBA finals with a “calf” injury, but came back in game 5 and ruptured his Achilles tendon. He's expected to miss the entire 2019-20 season. The Warriors though give credit where credits due, and showed that championship spirit and almost sent this series to game 7. 5 straight finals trip will do that to your body, LeBron went to 8 straight finals and was injured with a left groin injury missing a career-high 17 games. Sometimes the body breaks and the Raptors smelled blood and took it to the Warriors. The Warriors still had a good lineup to compete with Toronto, but Kawhi and company were too much.
Kawhi Leonard won Finals MVP, surprisingly not unanimously as teammate Fred Van Fleet got one lone vote. Leonard had one of the best playoffs in NBA history notching the third most playoff points with 732. The crazy part is that Kawhi would have passed LeBron, and possibly Michael Jordan, for most points in a playoff year. He set numerous franchise records during the teams historic run and had so many amazing playoff moments that it's hard to count. Kawhi's game seven game-winning shot over the Sixers will live forever. His performances against the Bucks was the stuff of legend. He made statement after statement each game. In the finals, he still put up good stats and took down the Warriors. This was not the same Kawhi Leonard that took the 2014 NBA Finals MVP home, Kawhi’s offense was more lethal and carried the Raptors at times in the playoffs. Leonard wasn't the number one guy in San Antonio at that time, with future Hall of Famers like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. He was there to stop LeBron and shut down Miami's big 3. Leonard was a scoring machine in this year's playoffs, he wasn't in the conversation as the top player in 2014 but in 2019 it's hard to argue that he's not the best player in the NBA player.
Kawhi Leonard isn't the only one who stepped up during the NBA finals. Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam had some big performances in the series. Siakam stepped up to the plate in game 1 scoring 32 points in his first NBA finals game, and in game 6 had another solid performance with 26 points. Kyle Lowry didn't have a game 1 or game two to remember, but when he arrived in the Bat area he became a different player. Lowry seemed to be more aggressive with the ball and was hitting his shots, he said it himself he plays better on the road. If it wasn't for his foul troubles Lowry could have easily hit 40 points.
The biggest surprise of the series had to be Fred Van Fleet. His confidence became more apparent with him shooting the ball and not second-guessing himself. Van Vleet’s gritty play helped the Raptors when Kawhi and Lowry were on the bench. Van Fleet showed no fear in attacking the rack and battle wounds to show for it. Just like Lowry, he saved his best performance of the series for game 6. Vanvleet hit 5 threes in the game and was one of 4 Toronto players to score over 20 points in the game. Not bad for a guy who was undrafted.
Ibaka's presence helped slow down Golden State, while Marc Gasol looked slow himself. Although the duos awareness and size paid dividends Ibaka’s play really stood out. Their bench played like a cohesive unit and rode their momentum from the Milwaukee series.
Masai Ujiri is a genius. Ujiri knew he had to shake the foundation of the team. He had to start with the man he hired several years ago in Dwayne Casey. Ujiri canned Casey and named Nick Nurse as the new head coach. Nurse was a winner in the D league and was the Raptors assistant coach for 5 seasons. After that, he traded away the teams franchise leader in Demar Derozan for Kawhi Leonard. A player that missed 73 games the season prior but had a championship pedigree. Those two moves set the wheels in motion while causing quite the buzz. Still unsatisfied he added Marc Gasol at the deadline.
Though the team hit some speed bumps which happens during a long season. Toronto came out on top. Ujiri was aggressive and was able to make moves that would make the Raptors a championship team. It's easy to play safe but Ujiri didn't want to play that game anymore. If you look at the rest of the roster, Ujiri signed an undrafted Fred Vanvleet and got Serge Ibaka out of Orlando. Ujiri built this team on toughness, defense, and a superstar. He added veteran guys and took a massive gamble adding Leonard. Well everyone derives their fair share of credit, this championship wouldn't have happened if Ujiri wasn't the genius GM he'd became.
The Raptors were once an afterthought in the NBA, but now they’re head turners. It should also be a message that you don't always need superstars to be a winner. The Raptors took down Goliath. Their fans going through some tough times, players leaving, coaches fired, busted draft picks, and a failing identity. Toronto winning the NBA championship felt like it would never happen, but guess what? 24 years later and Toronto finally are on top of the NBA world. WE THE CHAMPS!