More than one wag offered up the following sardonic thought on social media late Thursday and early Friday about the end of the Golden State Warriors’ five-year run of Finals appearances: They would have been better off getting swept.
Pretty amazing to think that the Warriors would have been far better off getting swept in this series.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) June 14, 2019
Oh, there would have been grief heaped upon them, mockery even, as part of a backlash to their excellence since 2015. It goes that way in sports, in the culture: The shiny, new object is always the best, until it’s no longer as shiny and definitely not as new. Lots of NBA fans had grown weary of the Warriors, so tired of seeing them dominate the Western Conference each spring and three of the previous four Finals that there really were multitudes eager to see them fall. A sweep would have delighted the schadenfreude set.
That would have been preferable, though, to what happened in extending the 2019 Finals by two games.
Had the Warriors been swept, Kevin Durant never would have returned from his right calf strain in Game 5 – and never would have torn the Achilles tendon in that leg, a far more severe injury that possibly wipes out Durant’s 2019-20 season and maybe alters his career trajectory.
Had the Warriors been swept, Klay Thompson would have reminded everyone of his durability and tenacity by playing with a pulled hamstring in Game 4, after missing Game 3. He never would have had to do it by making a pair of free throws on a torn ACL in his left knee Thursday and briefly acting as if he could finish out Game 6.
Had the Warriors been swept, there would be all the expected questions about their roster and their future heading into a pivotal summer. But the clouds overhead wouldn’t be nearly so dark.
As it turned out, Golden State’s magical stretch dating back to coach Steve Kerr’s hiring in 2014 ends with both a bang and a whimper: snapping human tissue in two of the worst injuries any basketball player can suffer, followed immediately by pain as well as rightful concern and sympathy for the individuals more than the dynasty itself.
The next few months were going to be a natural crossroads for the franchise all along. Move across the bay to a sparkling new arena, key free agents to re-sign or not, some alleged restlessness in Durant particularly and the simple passage of time in a league of rivals hungry to topple them. Now, with both Durant and Thompson out for much or all of next season – and will any team in recent memory have felt more pressure to err on the side of later rather than sooner in returning rehabbed players to action? – the Warriors are on the verge of being (gasp!) ordinary.
Draymond Green and Steph Curry brought stiff upper lips to the postgame podium, but it seemed like so much barking into the wind. “We're not done yet,” Green said. “We lost this year. Clearly just wasn't our year, but that's how the cookie crumbles sometimes. But, yeah, I hear a lot of that noise, ‘it's the end of a run’ and all that jazz. I don't see it happening though. We'll be back.”
Time and recoveries will tell. But this is important to note not just for the Toronto Raptors but others in the league and across sports: The Warriors’ bad luck was not the Raptors’ fault, and there should be no apologies from them, no asterisks attached to diminish their achievement.
Staying healthy, or as close to that, is part of winning a championship at the end of a long, grueling season. There are plenty of examples in the NBA alone of title quests or defenses derailed by injuries, but those almost always wind up as subplots, generally forgotten, once the news ages into history.
Remember how Kyrie Irving shattered his knee in Game 1 in 2015 and Kevin Love wasn’t around for the Finals at all in 2015, when the Warriors beat Cleveland for their first ring? Well, yeah, but that didn’t define Golden State’s accomplishment. The same can be said for the Spurs beating a Patrick Ewing-less Knicks team in 1999 or Boston benefiting from Lucius Allen’s absence to beat Milwaukee in seven games in 1974.
It really is possible that the Warriors were ground down by their repeated Finals runs, that the wear and tear accumulated as they crammed the equivalent of a sixth season into a calendar meant for five. Toronto will be the champs with the quick turnaround to 2019-20. We’ll see what they have left when the playoffs commence next April.
If ever a team endured a pinch-me playoffs, it was the Raptors. Even as they were reaching new heights and winning over new fans in Canada and elsewhere, there was an awareness kept front and center in most fans’ minds that this all could end rather unceremoniously come June 30.
Will Kawhi Leonard stay, which is to say sign a new contract with Toronto when he hits free agency at the end of this month, or will he go? If “Wide World of Sports” were still on the air, it might change its tagline to “the thrill of victory, the dread of what comes next.”
Raptors president Masai Ujiri gambled like a boss and cashed in beyond his wildest dreams. He fired his coach, Dwane Casey, and traded away the most loyal and popular player, DeMar DeRozan, from the franchise’s recent run of nice seasons. All for an enigmatic talent who was never going to commit verbally or emotionally to his new surroundings, confetti and champagne be damned.
So, uh, was it worth it? If Leonard signs with one of the Los Angeles teams (the Clippers are a long-rumored favorite) or some other offseason suitor, and sends Toronto into heavy scramble mode, will the present and just-completed past justify such an uncertain future?
Of course it will, silly. Ujiri rolled the dice and won big. He, Leonard, coach Nick Nurse and the rest of them got the Raptors to a place they’d never been and weren’t headed anytime soon. You can take this lesson all the way back to Tennyson, who gave us the bachelor’s and bachelorette’s refrain “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
Except, of course, that the Raptors won. They might not repeat. They might not even defend their league and conference titles in the East next spring. But they checked so many professional and passionate boxes for themselves and their fans that it’s hard to imagine the other path – running back the same solid crew while expecting different results?
That would require a switch in source material from Tennyson to Einstein, because that was the frizzy-haired genius’ definition of insanity. The NBA already has too many teams fixated on the future at the expense of tonight’s game and tomorrow’s, playing it safe for lottery balls and job security. Bravo for Toronto for going for it, when it (with the departure from the East of LeBron James) presented itself regardless of assured duration.
The winner of the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award is chosen annually in a vote of 11 media members selected by the NBA as a championship series reaches clinching altitude. Kawhi Leonard breezed to his victory for the award, getting 10 of the 11 votes from the, ahem, esteemed panelists.
ICYMI, here was the final tally for the Finals MVP: pic.twitter.com/mBhdM6pBYD— Steve Aschburner (@AschNBA) June 14, 2019
He did not get all 11, however: Venerable coach-turned-broadcaster Hubie Brown wrote Fred VanVleet on his ballot.
Quickly, social media had its say – too often and too loud, as is its wont. How dare Brown vote for a backup Toronto point guard over the team’s best player and points amasser not just in the Finals, but over the Raptors’ 2019 playoff run? Take his vote away, some opined.
Seriously? People need to calm down. As someone who voted for LeBron James in 2015 – when his Cleveland team actually lost the championship to Golden State – I know how the zeal for unanimous agreement works. There were four of us that year who felt James’ contributions to a hobbled Cavs team surpassed anything any single Warrior did over those six games.
Brown happened to be alone in his take, but it was not without merit. VanVleet made 16 3-pointers in the six games, the most by any player off the bench in any Finals. Robert ('Big Shot Bob') Horry and J.R. Smith had held the record with 15. He scored 84 points, finishing short of just five others in Finals history. The great Manu Ginobili, for instance, never chipped in as many when he was subbing in for San Antonio’s title teams.
And VanVleet scored 12 points in the final quarter of a clinching game that was, for all practical purposes, decided by one point. No one else on the floor Thursday night scored more than five in the fourth quarter. Let’s not forget, either, VanVleet’s defensive work in rendering Steph Curry as something less than combustible by the series’ end.
Leonard, the MVP, would have been scoreless in nine minutes in the fourth if not for his cushion free throws with 0.9 seconds left. Honestly, the taciturn small forward wasn't an obvious MVP pick in Game 5 or Game 6. But his body of work in the series – 28.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.2 apg – made his case early. So, unofficially, did his play across four playoff rounds: 30.5 ppg, 14 games of 30 points or more and 732 points overall in Toronto’s 24 games as the Raptors went 16-8.
It was good to see, too, that Leonard played in every one of his team’s postseason contests, which means Toronto got 84 games out of him this season.
Fact is, for a lot of sports fans, numbers are the first thing they enjoy. And there were several interesting ones, including:
The value of grabbing missed shots wasn’t lost on the Finals MVP. Leonard, in fact, took a trip down memory lane when asked about Curry’s potential game-winning 3-pointer at 111-110 with eight seconds left. The ball ticked out toward the key and Leonard was in the middle of a scramble for the loose ball. By the time Green claimed it – and called a timeout his team didn’t have – only 0.9 seconds remained.
“It didn't look like it was a good shot,” Leonard said. That had him in rebound mode. “I've been in situations like that in a Finals that I lost by two or three points, and we lost that game because of rebounds. I forgot who shot the ball, you guys know the story. It was the last two possessions for Miami, they got … four chances at the basket out of two possessions.”
Well, yeaaaah. That was Game 6 in 2013, the Heat vs. Leonard’s Spurs. LeBron James got to reload on one 3-pointer, and then Chris Bosh’s rebound of a James miss enabled him to feed Ray Allen for arguably the most memorable shot in Finals history.
“And that was my fault because I was trying to get the rebound,” Leonard said. “And once he missed the ball I tried to keep tipping it so some more time could run out. Didn't want to grab it right away so they could foul me.”
That last part, right there, is basketball genius. Leonard knew Golden State was in more trouble if he didn’t claim the offensive rebound than if he did.
Don’t go by this summer’s free agency shoporama. The Raptors aren’t set up with their payroll or roster to be big players when the market opens June 30 this time around.
But anyone who paid any attention to the 2019 Finals has to come away thinking Toronto – as a team, as an organization, as a city, as a fan base – ought to be one of the most appealing of the NBA’s 30, in terms of a player making his professional home there.
The Raptors’ camaraderie and bond was evident on the court and off through all four playoff rounds. Coach Nick Nurse seems respected and liked by his players, and guard Kyle Lowry told the story more than once that he recalled Nurse yelling at them in the locker room only twice all season. Mostly he guided, instructed, cajoled and showed them ways to go from good to better and from better to best, while serving as a role model for coaches in basketball’s Netherlands dreaming of the big time.
“My job is to get those guys to max out what they can do, get them to play together, get them to play tough defense, get them to share the ball and get them to handle adversity with some calmness and handle triumph with some calmness,” Nurse said before the clincher, in his self-effacing way. “Then you got to look at who you're playing and you got to try to figure it out. I was telling somebody today, I said… ‘Jesus, I don’t know how we're going to beat these guys.’ And then you say ‘God, there's got to be a way we can figure it out.’ In two sentences you go from one end to the other and that's what the job is.”
VanVleet showed class in his institutional memory, giving shout-outs from the postgame podium to team members who had helped get the Raptors to the brink of their championship, including DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright and coach Dwane Casey.
Obviously Ujiri showed the guts to make major moves, adding not just Leonard but Danny Green in that trade and acquiring Marc Gasol during the season. The scene outside Scotiabank Arena was remarkable, the “Jurassic Park” throngs that assembled for outdoor videoboard viewings of each game demonstrating a passion and loyalty you don’t routinely see around Madison Square Garden or Staples Center.
Sure, there are small hassles to playing and living in another country. International players don’t seem to mind the adjustments – they’ve already made bigger ones coming to North America, period – but those born in the U.S. sometimes seem stymied by clearing customs, by the exchange rate, by having to spell defense with a “c” and center by flopping the last two letters.
As for as a world capital for the modern age, though, Toronto is a poster place.
“Just having guys from different countries and speaking different languages, I think it kind of got us closer together,” forward Pascal Siakam said, sitting afterward drapped in the flag of his native Cameroon. “And you kind of have all those little kind of friendship with guys that you can speak the same language with, and from Spanish to French to English, different cultures. And I think kind of it represents Toronto in general,having that diversity.”
Said Gasol: “You look at the young players that [we] have, you see the coaching staff, their mindset, you look at the front office. Go from top to bottom, ownership, the trainers, physical therapists, chefs, everything. It's a top-class organization. They're all about winning. … It doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win, but it does help that everyone has that championship mentality.”
The Raptors and their fans are overdue, then, to lure players a cut above helpers such as Hedo Turkoglu, Jose Calderon, Bismack Biyombo, Tracy Murray or James Johnson. Everything is in place to attract top free agents, better than they’ve signed in the past, if only the players, their agents and their families will embrace basketball without borders as well as the league has.
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