We are the Champions!!!
The Larry O.B. is coming to Canada
The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions. It is surreal to read and even say. Anyone who is a Raptors fan and has followed the team since their inaugural season in 1995 knows the tragedy and turmoil that has followed the team.
There are numerous former stars who played for the Raptors, and they all left eventually. Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Chris Bosh are stars who loved Canada and Toronto but sought greener pastures to win and seek more money and fame in the United States. The redemption story for Toronto begins in 2009 with the drafting of the eventual sacrificial lamb DeMar DeRozan.
In 2009, Toronto was a good team with a couple of playoff appearances in the previous two years, but facing the final year of superstar Chris Bosh’s contract and a very raw DeRozan ready to start his rookie campaign. Toronto would struggle for the next four years while also losing Bosh, changing coaches, and bringing in new General Manager Masai Ujiri in 2013. The hiring of Ujiri was extremely critical in the success of the franchise, He brought a massive culture change to the organization that included credibility and progressiveness unseen in the history of the franchise. Early in the 2013 season, Ujiri made a critical trade that sent out Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings and brought back four players that would help push the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, led by DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
DeRozan and Lowry would lead various Raptor teams to the playoffs in five consecutive years, going as far as the Conference Finals, but they could never get over the hump and make it to the Finals. There was a massive obstacle named Lebron James who had made eight straight NBA Finals appearances to represent the Eastern Conference. The fans were divided. DeMar and Kyle were every kid’s hero – you never get two stars who love the city as much as they do and are willing to sign multiple contracts with the franchise, but no one is sure they can help the team win a championship. In the summer of 2018, Ujiri had finally had enough; he made the controversial decision to fire head coach Dwane Casey who had subsequently won the NBA Coach of the Year award for the 2017-2018 season with the Raptors. A few weeks later James decided to take his talents to the west coast and join the Los Angeles Lakers. Thus, the Raptors greatest obstacle was gone and the Raptors favoured themselves to make the Finals finally. Ujiri was unconvinced.
Kawhi Leonard, a former NBA Finals MVP, was unhappy. He played nine games in the 2017-2018 NBA season for the San Antonio Spurs, and he had injured his quad and was not recovering as well as he would have liked. The medical staff insisted he was healthy, but Leonard didn’t feel right. His teammates went to the media and criticized him for not playing and helping the team. Leonard decided he would not return to play for the most decorated organization in the NBA in the last 20 years.
On July 18, 2018 the basketball world was in shock: on July 18, 2018, DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poetl were traded for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Toronto had traded its best player for one of the best players in the game, but one who may not be healthy and has only one year left on his contract. The fans in Toronto were once again divided. Ujiri sent away the one star who loved and was willing to stay in Toronto for a mercenary basketball player on a one–year deal who was (in the minds of most at the time) assuredly gone after one year and may not be able to play. Everyone would soon find out Ujiri made the right decision.
Load management was the new term coined by Alex McKechnie, Director of Sports Science for the Raptors. This described what they were doing in order to allow Leonard to play at the highest level when he would be needed the most – in the playoffs. The regular season consisted of Leonard not playing on the second night of back-to-backs and various other days in order to reduce his workload and keep him healthy.
The playoffs began with the Raptors in the second seed. They faced the Orlando Magic. After losing the first game on a wild finish, they won the next four games to move on to the second round: The Philadelphia 76ers. Most people know how this series ends: in the seventh and deciding game, with the score tied, Kawhi Leonard catches the ball moves to his right reaches the baseline to pull-up for a fade away jump shot, bounce… bounce… bounce… bounce, Raptors win. Third round: “The Greek Freak” and the number one seed Milwaukee Bucks jump out to a two–game lead, but the Raptors team finally show up to help a slightly hobbled Leonard and win the next four games to beat the Bucks and move onto the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
The Golden State Warriors, with five consecutive Finals appearances, are the favourites to win the title, despite Kevin Durant being out with a reported calf injury. Game One, Raptors win 118–109, Pascal Siakam shows why he is worthy of being the Most Improved Player of the year with 32 points, Leonard and Marc Gasol chip in with 23 and 20 respectively.
Game Two, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are determined to take back home court advantage and lead the Warriors to a 109–104 win, but the Raptors play very poorly and still only lost by five. The Warriors are excited to go back home where they rarely lose.
Game Three, Klay Thompson is unable to play with a hamstring injury but it may not matter as the entire Raptors team is on fire and end up blowing out the Warriors at home with a score of 123–109 which, to be frank, flatters Golden State’s effort.
Game Four, Klay returns from the hamstring injury and because of his stellar play Toronto goes down early, but uses a magnificent third quarter to help them take a 3-1 lead in the series winning the game 105–92.
Game Five, Kevin Durant returns and the Warriors are feeling confident, but twelve minutes into his return Durant goes down with a torn achilles and will never play for the Warriors again. Toronto is on the verge of victory when Curry and Thompson hit three consecutive three-pointers and Golden State wins 106–105.
Game 6 is probably the closest and best game of the series from start to finish. Each team is giving their best shot. Late in the fourth quarter, Danny Green attempts to block Thompson’s dunk and he falls to the floor, eventually comes back to shoot his free throws, and exits the game with a torn ACL. A few minutes later the Raptors are crowned Champions.
The ups and downs of 24 years washed away in one swoop, Ujiri can scream vindication for all the criticism he faced over the past year and the team that usually cries conspiracy can now sing “We are the Champions.”