OAKLAND, Calif. — These NBA Finals needed to come to a merciful end before they claimed any more limbs and futures. And though the Toronto Raptors seemed poised to do whatever it took to ensure this series went another 48 minutes — despite all the signs and all the breaks going their way — their championship shouldn’t be asterisked.
By the time Klay Thompson went down with a torn ACL — an injury that not only cost the Golden State Warriors their best nuclear weapon but also a shot at contending next season — the hallowed halls of Oracle Arena bore witness to crutches and frustration. And an hour later those same halls were flooded by the smell of champagne with red eyes, joyful yells and long sighs of relief after the Raptors closed out the Warriors with a tense 114-110 victory in Game 6.
A group of players who were good but not good enough bonded over failures and the prospect of embracing the unknown — evidenced by Serge Ibaka carrying the Larry O’Brien trophy like a newborn baby up the Oracle tunnel and assistant coach Patrick Mutombo having everyone sign his soaked dress shirt like a high school yearbook.
The “Let’s-go-Raptors” chant was often drowned out by the Oracle faithful in Games 3 and 4, but was on full blast when NBA commissioner Adam Silver awarded Canada with its ultimate validation, reminding the crowd that basketball had Canadian roots — and that the 25-pound gold trophy will rest in the North for the next 12 months.
It was a long time coming for the Raptors, and they make no apologies for being beneficiaries of unfortunate circumstances, the wear-and-tear from five years of Warriors runs that came crashing down at once.
One can say luck favors the prepared, but it favored the Raptors’ boldness, and honored their consistency and perseverance through a postseason run that featured many tests before the ultimate one. The Raptors created their opening with Masai Ujiri’s gambit in going after Kawhi Leonard — a move that seems so brilliant in hindsight but risky on its face considering Leonard’s injury required so much management and free-agent status and came with no assurances for the future.
Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard celebrates after the Raptors won the NBA title. (AP)
“Well, just the year, last year, a lot of people were doubting me,” Leonard said. “They thought I was either faking an injury or didn’t 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 we’re not playing this game, if we’re hurt, I mean you’re down.”
Ujiri swung big not only on the floor, but also the sidelines when he decided Nick Nurse needed to coach his team instead of the likable Dwane Casey. One can say the Raptors’ reputation for underachievement was slightly overblown due to the generation’s greatest player repeatedly standing in their path, but Ujiri’s decision to leave nothing to chance created this cracked championship window.
“I saw it before I came here,” Raptors assistant coach Phil Handy said to Yahoo Sports. “Even before Kawhi came here, I thought Toronto had a chance to compete for a championship with LeBron [James] leaving the East. Then Kawhi gets traded here, Marc Gasol gets traded here and Danny Green gets traded here.”
Handy was on Ty Lue’s staff in Cleveland and was a coaching free agent over the summer. The season chugged along and of all the teams that took the pole position in championship conversation, the Raptors’ history kept the masses from seeing the quality they displayed. Even after facing deficits in every series to create more than enough doubt, they persevered long enough before luck opened its doors and bounces went their way or multiple-overtime games saved their playoff lives.
The bad luck that seemed to follow Toronto finally turned. For once, the Raptors didn’t fold when punched. They staggered, even wobbled, but their resolve stiffened and they outlasted Philadelphia and Milwaukee.
Kyle Lowry’s chance-taking shook his reputation of not being strong enough when it mattered. This, too, was a man who called Lue for advice when it was Lue’s schemes that had him shut down in a playoff series. In Game 6, Lowry was the player who kept the Raptors afloat early with his cold-blooded shooting, ignoring the pain of an injured thumb that will certainly require attention this offseason. Leonard’s excellence also continued to stand out.
“All you wanted is a chance to compete for a championship,” Handy told Yahoo Sports. “You gotta have players. Kawhi was the best player in all of the playoffs. People talked about him sitting out the whole year; the Raptors medical staff did an amazing job working with him. He did an amazing job monitoring himself.”
Even if you don’t think he was the best — if 11 glorious minutes from Kevin Durant gives you pause to think about Leonard taking the throne as the game’s best player — Leonard was the most durable one when it mattered. He grinded through his own injuries as bodies kept falling on the other side of the court. He’s also the best two-way player — a shutdown defender who also carries the offense, a description that hasn’t fit many others in the last 30 years.
“I told myself I would be back,” Leonard said. “I wasn’t going to come back until I could be the player I am today.”
The Raptors learned to play with — and without — Leonard, a life the Warriors will likely have to accept after this series claimed Durant and Thompson in an ending that wasn’t fitting to a building that housed so many memories and a proud champion that didn’t go quietly. In the end, they succumbed to a new champion who was healthier, bigger and faster, a team that discovered more ways to win after years of frequently coming up with ways to lose.
Carrying the Nigerian flag on his back as a symbol of his journey up the NBA’s ladder, Ujiri smiled late Thursday and accepted well-wishes from all around, perhaps thankful this series didn’t extend one more day.
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