On Friday, the final game of the 2019 NBA season saw the Toronto Raptors edging the Warriors to win their first title. This was a fairy tale result twenty-four years in the making. In truth, theirs was a championship that defied the odds, a team that got swept in last year’s playoffs. During the course of the long grind, they retooled, adding slotman Mark Gasol from Memphis. This was in addition to their offseason moves, where they traded for two starters: long-range sniper Danny Green and many-time All-Star Kawhi Leonard. In the process, they had to ship out homegrown star DeMar Derozan, but the dude never got them to the last dance. The NBA is a business, and you often have to make tough decisions for the greater good.
The Bounces of the game
The regular season ended with the Raptors having the second seed in the East. In like manner, they also had the second-best record in the entire league, behind only the Milwaukee Bucks. This guaranteed them homecourt advantage should they progress all the way. In the first round, they lost Game 1 to the inspired Magic, a trend that would continue for most of the postseason. In all their East series, they trailed against their opponents. Down 0-1 contra the Magic, they swept the next four to face the spirited Sixers. That was a tough seven game standoff that played more like a chess match. In a must-win Game 7, the score was tied with seconds left when The Klaw hoisted a jumper while fading out of bounds. The ball hit the rim four times before falling through. Game Over!
Against the wall
In the East Finals, they had their backs against the wall. Contending with the Greek Freak, they faced an 0-2 deficit. At times, it seemed like Kawhi was the only consistent gamer. His workload against the Bucks was Herculean, that his missing strings of games during the season seemed logical. Even the commentators were debating on the right time for him to sit. They were able to gut it out and won the next four, booking a spot in the Finals against the reigning champs.
While the Raptors performed admirably during the showdown, they were up against a banged-up Warriors fold. These Dubs have been here for the last four years; they were tired. In Game 5 versus the Rockets, Kevin Durant went down with a scary calf injury. They had to wing it in the first four tilts. With Klay Thompson also missing Game 3, they faced an uphill battle. You’ve probably heard by now that Durant returned prematurely for Game 5 and ended up walking in crutches. Buoyed by their superstar, they escaped that contest with a one-point win. With Klay going down again on Friday, they were out of options and crumbled. Raptors win, 4-2.
Much has been said about The Klaw’s brilliance over these playoffs. He had been a light in the Raptors’ darkest moments, pulling them out of the brink. His defence has always been elite, but his development as an offensive weapon was like beholding a master at work. Early in his career, he had been a slasher/post player who used his upper body strength to overpower defenders in the post. Over the years, he honed his midrange game, before moulding his three-point shot. He has been very dependable from beyond the arc, and his complete game was on full display throughout this postseason. No doubt he carried the Raptors on his back.
Coach Nick’s wiliness
We have heard of Kawhi’s greatness, but of Coach Nick’s wiliness we have not…until today. He outsmarted Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer, frustrating Giannis and forcing him to take ill-advised three-balls. In the finals, he was undaunted in employing a box and one defence against Steph Curry, a tactic most often used in high school and college ball but rarely seen in the pros. His mission: to shoot down the Dubs’ lone offensive weapon during the absences of Klay and KD. Nurse notably went with backup Fred VanVleet to start the second halves instead of the bigger Green. The former did a marvellous job on Steph. He is a rookie head coach, getting the gig last summer after the front office fired Dwayne Casey. Add rookie chip coach to the mix, joining the likes of Pat Riley and more recently, Steve Kerr. He had some balls to emerge victorious at all three road games at Oracle, one of the toughest places to win. In the last game ever at that ageing stadium, he engineered a game plan that shut the door on any Warriors’ sliver of light. However, this comes with an asterisk: they played against a hobbled Warriors dynasty.
The Dubs were out of sync. As mentioned, they were missing two All-Stars and were in the Finals for a fifth consecutive time. The extended grind took their toll across the entire roster. While Kawhi was overused during this postseason run, imagine multiplying that effort times five. To confound the Raptors, they employed the occasional zone defence. In Game 6, they were able to contain their opponents for three successive trips down the floor, only for VanVleet to hit an ice-cold three. The Dubs’ attack became predictable, almost always relying on a Curry pick-and-roll or isolation. Their half-court offensive sets became a barrage of threes, only this time they weren’t falling. They tried to wring Iggy and Draymond for points, but both were in way over their heads.
In the end, one cannot remove what the dinosaurs brought to the fight. They came with a lot of grit and they took the task seriously. They were not content with stealing a game or two; even with two or three victories, the locker room was a famously sombre place. At the grandest stage, everyone chipped in. Kyle Lowry was a lovely second banana, not only burying threes, but also running the show. Mark Gasol was the best centre on the hardwood, outworking Kevon Looney and Andrew Bogut for pivotal scores and boards. As per above, VanVleet made life more difficult for Curry. Serge Ibaka came alive during the homestretch. In six games, the Raptors were no doubt the more consistent team. They fought for every loose ball, were more aggressive, more balanced offensively, and were the hungrier defensive squad. The Klaw may have run off with the MVP, but this was without question a team effort. As they now are the first non-American quintet to win the Larry O’Brien trophy, they did not only have the weight of the big city on their shoulders, but also the entire country. Boy, did they deliver.