In the 2016 NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving hit a game-winning 3-pointer to help the Cavaliers complete a historic comeback. Three years later, Stephen Curry, widely regarded as the greatest shooter in NBA history, had an opportunity to extend the Finals from nearly the same spot.
The NBA is a make-or-miss league and Curry’s rare miss allowed the Toronto Raptors to salt away the final moments of Game 6 to capture the franchise’s first championship. Toronto went 3-0 on the road in its 4-2 series win and will celebrate the culmination of a four-year process to contend.
That process took a massive turn in the summer, but the Raptors President of Basketball Operations and GM Masai Ujiri remained unfazed. He made the offseason gamble, doubled down on it during the season and saw his vision come to fruition.
In the three seasons prior to 2018-19, the Raptors were steadily developing into Eastern conference elites. The team went 166-80 in those three years, including a 59-win campaign a season ago to capture the top seed in the conference. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry formed a dynamic backcourt hoping to lead Toronto to its first title. Instead, the Raptors consistently crumbled at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
After a second consecutive sweep at the hands of James in the conference semifinals, Ujiri had seen enough.
Ujiri felt the Raptors had hit their ceiling with a DeRozan-Lowry pairing. As a result, he made the ultimate gamble.
Ujiri traded DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick for Kawhi Leonard, a two-way superstar dealing with a quadriceps injury. Leonard had demanded a trade from the Spurs after a contentious battle between player and franchise over his injury status. The soon-to-be free agent forward didn’t want to go to Toronto, according to multiple media reports, but Ujiri decided to make the deal anyway. The Raptors also acquired Danny Green, a player with championship experience, in the move.
“We all know where my destinations were,” Leonard told reporters after Game 6, describing how he came to terms with being sent to the Raptors. “I wanted to make history here and that’s all I did. I’m still playing basketball no matter what jersey I have on. I knew they were a talented team.”
That wasn’t the only move Ujiri made. He let Dwane Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year, go and promoted assistant Nick Nurse to the head job. Nurse was credited with developing Toronto’s young players and re-tooling the team’s offense, but he was still going to be a first-year head coach. There were a lot of questions surrounding the Raptors heading into the season.
Leonard’s health was the primary concern. He had played just nine games in the previous season and there was no telling whether he would return to his previous form.
“Obviously when we made some additions to the team we thought we could be good,” Nurse said after Game 6. “But we had no idea what the health status was.”
“A lot of people were doubting me,” Leonard told reporters regarding his injury. “You know, [they] thought I was either faking an injury or didn’t want to play for a team. That was disappointing to me.”
Another concern was Lowry’s mental state after seeing his backcourt mate and best friend DeRozan get traded away. He refused to discuss the move at USA Basketball camp and those feelings continued into the beginning of the season. But Lowry got a message from his new teammate the day the trade went down.
“I texted Kyle the day that I got traded, and told him let’s go out and do something special,” Leonard told reporters. “I know your best friend left, I know you’re mad, but let’s make this thing work out.”
We all remember Toronto’s news conference introducing Leonard and Green for Kawhi’s infamous laugh, but we might have missed the most important comment from the day. It came from Ujiri.
“The narrative of not wanting to come this city is gone,” Ujiri said. “I think that’s old and we should move past that. Believe in this city, believe in yourselves.”
That belief was echoed by Leonard, Lowry, Nurse and a Toronto squad built to win it all this season. The past didn’t matter, the future was uncertain. Ujiri had built a team specifically for this season.
The Raptors started off hot, going 16-4 in their first 20 contests. Leonard sat six games due to “load management,” something that would cost him 22 games over the course of the whole season. The team continued to keep pace with the upstart Bucks at the top of the Eastern conference, but other contenders were also making moves. The 76ers added Jimmy Butler in November and Tobias Harris at the trade deadline to bolster their championship aspirations. The Celtics showed their talent level in wins over Toronto and Milwaukee early in the season despite internal tensions. Boston even rattled off two five-game winning streaks ahead of the trade deadline, including a 117-108 win over the Raptors.
Ujiri, feeling the need to keep up with conference competition, determined Toronto still needed one more piece.
Ujiri doubled down on his championship quest at the deadline, acquiring All-Star C Marc Gasol from the Grizzlies for Jonas Valanciunas, CJ Miles, Delon Wright and a 2024 second-round pick. Gasol helped stabilize Toronto’s defense heading into the postseason.
|Raptors Defensive Splits (via NBA.com)||Opponent PPG||Opponent FG%||Opponent 3-pt%||Def. Rating|
|Without Marc Gasol (56 games)||108.4 (10th)||45.3 (9th)||34.3 (6th)||107.2 (8th)|
|With Marc Gasol (26 games)||108.3 (9th)||44.1 (5th)||34.7 (10th)||105.8 (3rd)|
Bringing Gasol on wasn’t Ujiri’s only midseason move. According to Stadium NBA Insider Shams Charania, the executive met with Lowry before the deadline to clear the air over the events of the summer. Ujiri determined Lowry’s focus would be key for a championship run. The conversation helped, according to Lowry.
“It was a well-needed conversation,” Lowry told Charania. “It was a very professional conversation and it had to be done. We had to get everything on the table. Listen, ‘Let’s have this conversation, let’s get everything out on the table, and move on.’ And that’s what grown men do. They have conversations, they figure it out, and you move on.”
Toronto entered the postseason with the second-best record in the league, but stumbled in Game 1 against the Magic in the first round. Conversations began about whether this was just a new look for the same old underachieving Raptors. Toronto rattled off four straight wins to shake that doubt.
In a back-and-forth series with the 76ers in the second round, Leonard emerged as the best player in the postseason. He averaged 34.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game on 53 percent shooting. He consistently defended Philadelphia’s hot hand. And then there was one of the greatest shots in Toronto postseason history.
Heading into the Eastern conference finals, Leonard and the Raptors would square off with likely league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. There was a lot at stake in terms of legacies for both players and one franchise’s magical season was going to come to an end. After going down 2-0, things weren’t looking great for Toronto.
Nurse saw things differently.
“I don’t really give a crap about that,” Nurse told reporters when informed about his team’s low chances to win the series. “I just want our team to come play their ass off [Sunday night] and get one game and it changes the series.”
That speech, combined with timely shooting from Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell, helped galvanize the Raptors to win four straight games and advance to the team’s first NBA Finals. There was one more task to accomplish, but Ujuri’s gamble was already validated.
The Raptors would have to get past the Golden State Warriors, a team appearing in a historic fifth straight NBA Finals, for the ultimate prize. The Warriors were banged up entering the series, but there was no question about their championship experience. They were eyeing a three-peat to close out a successful 53-year run at Oracle Arena. Could Lowry match Curry? Could VanVleet continue his hot shooting streak? Could Leonard put together one more dominant series?
THE RARE MISS
Toronto answered all those questions. VanVleet shot 40 percent from behind the arc, including a 5-for-11 performance in the decisive Game 6. Leonard was brilliant in his second Finals MVP performance, averaging 28.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. And then there was the key guard matchup that had to go Toronto’s way.
|NBA Finals Comparison||Points||FG%||3-Point%||Assists||Rebounds|
Aside from Curry’s sheer volume, Lowry was able to stay close with the superstar’s efficiency and creation. His 19-point first-quarter explosion in Game 6 helped the Raptors get off to the hot start they needed to close out the series. Lowry shot 56.3 percent from the floor and 57.1 percent from deep in Game 6. Curry shot 35.3 and 27.3 percent on those splits, respectively, in Game 6. There was also the missed opportunity on an open 3-pointer at the end of the game, sealing Golden State’s fate.
There was an indisputable element of health involved in the Finals favoring the Raptors. Kevin Durant missed the first four games of the series and suffered a torn Achilles in the second quarter of Game 5. Klay Thompson missed Game 3 with a hamstring injury and suffered a torn ACL in the third quarter of Game 6. Thompson had 30 points on 8-for-12 shooting from the floor prior to leaving the game. Had he stayed in the game, it’s likely Golden State holds on to force Game 7.
The Raptors still deserve tremendous credit for their series win. They took three games on the road at one of the most difficult places to win. Golden State was 45-7 at home in the last five postseasons heading into the Finals, good for a 86.5 winning percentage. Toronto eliminated that edge.
Leonard reflected on his whirlwind year and the doubt he faced after the game. He will enter free agency as the most coveted prize and after leading Toronto to a historic title, his potential departure doesn’t matter. He accomplished his goal for this season and he will likely be the best player ever to don a Raptors uniform, even if it was just for one season.
“I just knew that I have to make myself happy and no one else, and I have to trust myself and doesn’t matter what anybody has to say about me,” Leonard said. “I know who I am as a person, I know how I feel. Always just trust yourself.”
Nurse, who became the second first-year head coach to win a title (ironically against Steve Kerr, who did it first), reflected on his coaching journey after Game 6. He had spent 29 years across college basketball, European leagues and the NBA G-League prior to landing an assistant gig with Toronto.
“I would hope it inspires some people that are in those situations to keep working. I always say all those jobs meant the world to me at the time,” Nurse told reporters. “I loved all those jobs. I never really got discouraged, I didn’t really care the level I was coaching at. I was just trying to learn and get better.”
This self-trust and belief started last summer with Ujuri’s decisions. It carried through the season and picked up steam at the trade deadline.
And it ended in a championship.
“Words can’t explain how I feel. It’s been a long, long time. To be able to say I’m a world champion, it makes me feel great. It hasn’t hit me yet,” Lowry told reporters after Game 6.
“The city of Toronto, the country of Canada, we did it. We brought it home and we want everybody to celebrate.”