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Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors celebrates his teams win over the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 to win the 2019 NBA Finals.
Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors celebrates late in the Game 6 against the Golden State Warriors.
Tense Toronto Raptors in Edmonton fans watch Game 6 at the Edmonton Expo Centre.
OAKLAND — They the Champions.
After 61 days and 24 games of a playoff run that spurred countless Jurassic Parks, We the North flags, and a mushrooming of interest in basketball in this country that had never before been seen, the Toronto Raptors put an end to, and a bow on, their shocking post-season trip by winning the NBA title on Thursday night.
The franchise that spent most of the first two decades of its existence not being good enough to matter, and then spent the past five years being just good enough to embarrass themselves, had broke through all that less than weeks ago by reaching its first NBA Finals. For the longest time, just making it to that stage seemed like an impossible dream. And now they have gone and outdone that, too.
The Raptors, in beating the Golden State Warriors 114-110 for a 4-2 Finals victory, defeated the team that most of the basketball world has felt was destined to win its third straight championship since training camp. The Raptors had not felt destined to do this until, maybe, last Friday. It is like they spent years planning a trip to Everest base camp, and then once there just went and climbed the whole damn mountain.
It was, in the end, not easy. It took a third straight win on the road at Oracle Arena, the last of them coming after Toronto lost a bizarre Game 5 at home that included Kevin Durant’s return from injury, and then a crippling new injury, and an ugly moment when Raptors fans celebrated his fall before changing course and giving him a polite send-off. Aside from sparking existential questions about fandom and tribalism, the loss raised the possibility that the ghost of past Raptors failures were back.
Instead, the Raptors did what they have done all spring, responding to a tough loss with an inspired performance. Big early shots from Kyle Lowry and big late ones from Fred VanVleet, as the Warriors threw everything at Kawhi Leonard, were enough for Toronto to outlast Golden State. The Warriors also lost Klay Thompson to an ankle injury late in the third quarter, and in the end they just didn’t have enough shooters on the floor. Steph Curry missed a three-pointer with less than 10 seconds left, and a late scramble effectively killed the remaining clock.
When it was over, Leonard and Lowry embraced on the Oracle court, kicking off a long series of celebrations that saw hundreds — possibly thousands — of Raptors fans congregated in one corner of the evening singing “O, Canada” and chanting “Let’s Go Raptors.”
The indelible mark that this Raptors team will leave on basketball in Canada was probably already made, regardless of the eventual result of the series. As it unlikely as it still seems to have the Raptors as kings of the NBA, it is equally as bizarre to have seen so much of the country get sucked into a professional basketball playoff run. Whatever the factors: the lack of Canadian teams that went deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the absence of any championships among Canada’s nine entries in the three oldest North American sports leagues for 26 years, the slow build of a Raptors run that was punctuated by several thrilling moments, the end result has been the kind of communal interest in sports that usually only happens in this country during an Olympics. It feels intensely local, as though everyone in the neighbourhood is talking about the Raptors and wearing their logos, and yet also incredibly wide-reaching. There were viewing parties all over the country on Thursday night, in town squares and theatres and in football stadiums. All to watch a basketball team from the city that the rest of the country generally loves to hate.
It’s the kind of thing that the Toronto Raptors organization would never have imagined, even if the thing that created the wave, the title run, has been a number of years in the making. Those Raptors teams that always fell on their collective face in the playoffs were the first necessary step to what happened in Oakland on Thursday night. Masai Ujiri returned to Toronto six years ago to run the basketball operations and, with his finger poised over the reset button, he semi-stumbled into a lineup that made a surprising playoff run. He kept adding useful pieces, and convinced DeMar DeRozan to stay, a landmark moment for an All-Star player with this franchise, and along the way kept his eye on the big picture: adding a new practice facility, and a team in the NBA’s developmental league. Those Raptors teams became deep and talented and successful in the regular season, but they lacked the true superstar that is essential to NBA playoff success, something that only became more obvious when they would have their season ended in increasingly dismissive fashion by LeBron James year after year.
And then Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green arrived, and later Marc Gasol, and suddenly the Raptors weren’t the same collection of guys who stumbled at the worst possible time anymore. They were instead a collection of players from all over the world who had earned their way to this stage. Leonard, the impossibly quiet defensive stopper whose offensive gifts had never before been put to use the way they were with the Raptors. Pascal Siakam, the Cameroonian who didn’t take up basketball until his late teens. Kyle Lowry, the underappreciated All-Star who has been the heart of the team for as long as it has been good. Not one Raptor was a lottery pick in the NBA draft, and they were guided by Nick Nurse, a rookie head coach from Iowa who had won titles in the developmental league and the United Kingdom.
But this isn’t a lunch-pail crew, and it’s not some crazy expansion outlier. The Raptors have a big payroll, as befits a roster with its level of NBA experience. It’s just a collection of talented, smart, basketball players, and a group that did the exact opposite of what fans have come to expect of the guys in Raptors jerseys: they played their best basketball at the best possible time.
All season long, they said that winning games was secondary to preparing for the playoffs. There were nights when this seemed like madness, especially when the starters still hadn’t played together that often.
But this was the plan. All those smart players? The more they played together, the better and more cohesive they became. Good enough to survive a seven-game war with Philadelphia, good enough to win four straight against Milwaukee, and now, good enough to do the unthinkable.
The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions. It had barely registered as a possibility, and then it happened.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019