OAKLAND -- The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions. Take a minute and let that thought marinate. The franchise that brought us the purple dinosaur and Zan Tabak is the best basketball team on the planet.
They did it by beating the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in six games, winning all three at Oracle Arena. They were the better team throughout the series. They were more connected on defense and offered a more diverse attack on offense.
Game 6 was a thing of beauty, a breathtaking thrill-ride of lead changes, clutch shotmaking, and one brilliant play after another. After a series in which the play could charitably be called uneven, the Raptors and Warriors offered up a classic that finally overshadowed events off the court and returned the spotlight to where it belonged.
Longtime Raptor Kyle Lowry was sublime, scoring 26 points to go with 10 assists, seven rebounds, three steals, and a half dozen moments that can only be called Kyle Plays. One game after getting benched for the balance of the fourth quarter, young Pascal Siakam redeemed himself with 26-and-10. Gritty reserve Fred VanVleet continued his metamorphosis into a modern-day Sam Cassell with 22 points off the bench.
Barring a third quarter meltdown in Game 2 and a late collapse in Game 5, they were clearly the better team in every respect. That they came back from both defeats only shows just how far this Raptor team has come. No more Raptoring. No more hoping things will turn out differently this time. The Raptors met every challenge and offered creative solutions to any problems that arose.
Two months of playoff basketball, they never seemed tired to me, Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. Mentally they kept wanting film sessions, they kept wanting to walk through things, they kept wanting to keep learning and improving. And I think that was a big key. We had to do that in the playoff run because we really hadnt had all that much time together.
Most of all, the Raptors won a championship because they refused to wait their turn. While the rest of the league bided their time and waited for Golden States run to die of natural causes, the Raptors took them on with a series of swift and decisive decisions.
They won by gambling on a franchise player who may not stick around to enjoy the title defense and a first-year head coach who worked the minors for more than two decades. This is the ultimate shoot-your-shot team.
When general manager Masai Ujiri traded for Kawhi Leonard, he did so with the knowledge that Leonard offered no guarantees or assurances that he would remain in Toronto past the final year on his contract. When he hired Nurse to replace longtime coach Dwane Casey, he did so after the best regular season in franchise history and a year in which Casey won Coach of the Year honors.
Throwing caution to the wind and abandoning a carefully constructed roster that had run its course, the Raptors had one chance to get it right. They nailed it with an inspired stretch of basketball that ranks among the finest runs in playoff history.
Down 2-0 against the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals, Toronto ran off four straight wins. Throw in an epic seven-game series in the second round against Philadelphia, one whose outcome literally hung on the rim, and the Raptors truly deserved their champagne moment.
Because the Raptors appear to be an anomaly, they have naturally been compared to other one-year wonders. Like the 2004 Pistons, they combined a brutal defense with a roster full of smart and savvy veterans to take down a dynasty. Like the 2011 Mavericks, they clicked at exactly the right moment and earned a championship for a longtime franchise icon in Lowry. And like the 2014 Spurs, they made the defending champs crack on their home floor.
Its no accident that both the Spurs and the Raptors featured Leonard, whose two-way game has become the stuff of legend. There might be a better player somewhere in the league, but no one had a better postseason than Kawhi. The Finals may not have been as spectacular as his other playoff series, but he still averaged nearly 27 points and 10 rebounds en route to a second Finals MVP award.
Kawhi brought the Raptors back from the brink of a 2-1 deficit against Philadelphia with a Game 4 for the ages, and finished that series with the most important shot in franchise history. In the conference finals, he put the clamps on presumptive league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and completely changed the outcome. Against the Warriors, Kawhi was simply there. He was faster and stronger to loose balls, and when shots needed to be made, he stuck them.
The Raptors adopted his steely persona and made it their own. The most indelible image they created during the Finals was when they left the court in Game 4 wearing stone-cold expressions after taking two straight at Oracle. They came here expecting to win and they did, shutting the old concrete funhouse down with a giddy champagne bath.
The series was lesser for the absence of Kevin Durant, who missed the first four games with a calf injury and then suffered a ruptured Achilles early in the second quarter of Game 5. KDs injury hung ominously over everything, a grim reminder that nothing in this league is ever guaranteed and the game can be taken away at a moments notice. To a lesser extent, it suffered for the absence of Klay Thompson, who missed Game 3 and then tore his ACL in the third quarter of Game 6.
No one knows that better than Leonard, who endured an injury-plagued campaign in San Antonio that brought about his desire to leave the only organization he had ever known. When it was all over, Kawhi finally addressed the circuitous route that took him north of the border.
Well, just the year, last year, a lot of people were doubting me, Leonard said. They thought I was either faking an injury or didnt want to play for a team. That was disappointing to me that that was out in the media, because I love the game of basketball. Like I always say, if were not playing this game, if were hurt, I mean youre down. So me just going through that, and I just knew that I would have to make myself happy and no one else. And I have to trust myself. And whatever, it doesnt matter what anybody has to say about me. I know who I am as a person, I know how I feel, and always just trust yourself.
As Durant enters an uncertain phase of his career, he too will have to trust himself. He endured far too many slights and way too much ridicule for what in retrospect was a natural decision to marry his talents with the best team of this generation. They won two championships together and may have made it three in a row if not for cruel twist of fate. One only hopes that Durant not only finds good physical health in his future, but mental peace of mind in what has been a glorious career.
Game 6 was also marred by Thompson suffering a torn ACL. Before he landed awkwardly on a drive, Thompson was once again burnishing his reputation as the best big-game player of his generation, with 30 points on just 12 shots. Had Klay not gone down, we might all be headed back to Canada for Game 7, but thats the cruel nature of sports.
We can sit here and say, well, if this hadnt happened or that hadnt happened ... that doesnt matter, Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. What matters is Kevin Durant is going to miss next season with an Achilles tear and Klay suffered a knee injury. But its just brutal. Its just brutal of what these guys have had to deal with and what theyre dealing with right now..
Its natural to wonder what might have been, but there are no asterisks here. Injuries are a part of the championship cycle and nearly every champion enjoyed the benefit of good medical fortune along the way. The Warriors began their five-year run beating a Cleveland Cavaliers team in 2015 that was without two All-Stars, and the Cavs repaid them the following year when Draymond Green was suspended for a game and Andrew Bogut was injured in Game 6.
Once you win a championship, it doesnt matter how it happens. Youre just a champ, now and forever. And the Raptors earned this title. They beat three excellent basketball teams in succession, each one offering a different and unique challenge.
Theirs is a story of perseverance and opportunity, a glorious run that was made possible because they dared to believe it would only turn out differently by making bold moves and taking chances.
The Raptors are NBA champs. What a world.