For the first time in their 24-year history, the Toronto Raptors reign supreme in the NBA; the team from north of the border are NBA champions.
After beating the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs in five games, Toronto then came out on top over the Philadelphia 76ers following a grueling seven-game series before then overwhelming the presumed favorites out East, the Milwaukee Bucks, in six games to win the Eastern Conference Finals.
Then came the hard part.
Waiting for them in the NBA Finals were the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, one of the best teams ever assembled and by far the toughest test they were set to face.
It took six games for the Raptors to take them out.
Behind Kawhi Leonard’s absurd two-way play, Pascal Siakam’s hair-on-fire transition play and finishing down low, Kyle Lowry’s steadying demeanor at lead guard, Marc Gasol’s intimidating presence in the paint, as well as the knockdown shooting and defense of key role players Fred VanVleet, Danny Green and Serge Ibaka, Toronto showed championship mettle and resolve throughout the series, and were ultimately able to dethrone the mighty Warriors.
Of course, we would be remiss if we failed to mention there were some mitigating circumstances at play.
For starters, Golden State’s unquestioned best player and arguably the top player in the world, Kevin Durant, missed the first four games of the series before returning for 12 minutes in Game 5 and rupturing his Achilles, sidelining him for the rest of the Finals (and probably a lot longer). Without Durant, the Warriors’ already-questionable depth became a real anchor to Golden State’s chances and, proved far too much to overcome.
It wasn’t just Durant going down, either. Backup big man Kevon Looney missed an outing with a chest contusion, and All-Star two-guard Klay Thompson likewise had to sit out a vital Game 3 due to a bum hamstring, only to return and then hurt his knee during the deciding Game 6, which all but sealed the Warriors’ fate.
So it’s impossible to argue against there being some element of luck involved with this title run for the Raptors.
But what title run hasn’t involved some sort of luck? NBA teams outright dominating the postseason from start to finish rarely happens, especially in modern basketball with so many franchises littered with elite talent.
At full force, would the Raptors have beaten Golden State in six? Probably not. Does it matter, though? Certainly not. Titles don’t get asterisks on them.
Plus, unlike the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, who also faced a Warriors team sans Durant (albeit for just one game in Houston’s case), Toronto managed to take full advantage of the lucky hand they were dealt and dismantled the defending champs, taking the throne for themselves in the process.
And it’s not like they were lucky to be in the Finals, either.
They were pushed to the limit by the Sixers and used a legendary Leonard fallaway jumper to advance.
And they were able to take down an elite Bucks team that hadn’t lost four games in a row all year by… beating them four times in a row.
Although they may not have been the regular season’s best team, the Raptors peaked at the perfect time, which probably has a lot to do with the way they balanced chasing home-court advantage and load management to their key players, particularly Leonard. Despite being mostly healthy for the majority of 2018-19, Leonard sat out 22 games throughout the course of the regular season. Part of that had to do with him missing most of last year with a lingering thigh injury, and part of it had to do with having their best player fresh for the most important stretch of the campaign.
And boy, did that plan ever pay dividends.
Leonard performed at such a level in the playoffs that he’s made a legitimate case to be considered the NBA’s new top dog. Averaging 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists in the postseason, knocking down 37.9 percent of his threes and 88.4 percent from the free-throw stripe, hitting timely shot after timely shot, all while playing sublime perimeter defense, Leonard proved his status as an all-time great in 2019, an unstoppable force that will one day be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.
It’s no wonder the freakish wing holds the record for the best winning percentage in league history.
This championship series, Leonard became the first player to win multiple Finals MVP awards without a regular-season MVP trophy, an insane feat, and one that exemplifies the type of otherworldly talent he is.
His play was so cool, confident and tenacious, especially in the clutch, that it seemed to rub off on the rest of the Raptors.
From the top player in their rotation to their most important bench pieces, Toronto had elite two-way play, composure and tenacity coming from all directions, to the point that even a team as seasoned as Golden State appeared to get overwhelmed at times.
Of course, it’s impossible to discuss this Raptors championship without talking about Lowry. From a player who used to be not-so-lovingly known as “Playoff Lowry” when the postseason rolled around due to his propensity to shoot poorly and vanish in big moments, Lowry was able to flip that nickname and turn it into a glowing one these playoffs. The first-time champion point guard averaged 15.0 points and 6.6 assists per game throughout the course of the postseason, played hounding defense, drew a bunch of charges and did all the little things that helped Toronto win its first-ever title.
We also have to talk about Siakam, who blossomed from late first-round pick to a deep bench piece a few years ago to, now, the third-best player on a championship team – an terrific ascension that started back in 2016. Without Siakam’s ability to get to the basket, hightail it in transition and defend multiple positions, there’s no chance the Raptors make it as far as they did this season.
Leonard, Lowry and Siakam also got plenty of help from their role players against Golden State. VanVleet averaged 14.0 points and 2.2 assists in the Finals, did his best to lock up Stephen Curry and still hit 40.0 percent of his triples; Green put up 7.3 points per game and hit 36.4 percent of his threes; Gasol posted a productive 12.0/7.3/2.7 stat line; and Ibaka came up huge, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks while spacing the floor from three.
Considering only two of those guys had prior Finals experience (Green and Ibaka), it’s crazy to consider how much production Toronto got from their secondary pieces. VanVleet, in particular, deserves a ton of credit for the manner in which he showed up in the championship-deciding sixth game, where he put up 22 points and hit five threes on 6-of-14 shooting; at one point in a tight fourth quarter, the diminutive backup ball-handler had 12 of Toronto’s 18 points. Without him, it’s very possible the series would have gone seven.
So yes, a touch of luck did exist in this title run for the Raptors. But Toronto still deserves loads of credit for the way they were able to step up on the grandest stage of basketball, from the top player on their roster to the eighth man in the rotation, take it to the Warriors and become the new kings of the hardwood.
It was an impressive run, and one that will be looked back on fondly the further we get away from it.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.