The last few seconds of the 2019 NBA Finals felt like a blur. There was Danny Green’s turnover, Stephen Curry’s errant game-winner and a technical foul for too many timeouts. This is to say nothing of the final quarter, which featured three ties and three lead changes between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors.
Kevin Durant’s torn Achilles stunned us in Game 5, and Klay Thompson’s torn ACL threw us for a loop in Game 6. Before we even had time to put that news in proper perspective, Toronto won the title and Golden State’s dynasty may be over.
Let’s take a breath to consider how we got here. By my count, there are six coin-flip moments from the playoffs that could have altered the fate of the Finals, and all six flipped in favor of the Raptors. This is not to say Toronto didn’t earn the crown, because they proved over and over to be the best team, but rather to illustrate how slim the margins are between winning and losing, goat and hero, champion or not.
Eastern Conference semis, Game 7: Kawhi’s miracle
Any of four bounces could have caromed astray, but Leonard’s fadeaway corner 3-pointer over a chasing Ben Simmons and a leaping Joel Embiid sunk a Philadelphia 76ers team that looked every bit as formidable as the Raptors through all 336 minutes of that series — and even for the few more seconds it hung in the balance.
Now, who’s to say Toronto wouldn’t have won in overtime anyway. They were on their home floor, and they had Leonard, destroyer of dynasties, much less a young Sixers team that has yet to learn how to close out a competitive series. Still, the Raptors were this close to losing in the second round of the NBA playoffs, leading to all kinds of questions as to whether trading for Leonard was actually worth it.
Leonard’s shot saved us from that discussion and the Raptors from so much more.
Western Conference semis, Games 1, 5 and/or 6
We’ll combine Games 1, 5 and 6 of the Warriors’ second-round series, since any could have sent them home early and resulted in a different Finals foe for Toronto.
On three separate occasions in the first half of Game 1, Golden State defenders stepped into the landing space of the Houston Rockets’ shooters, robbing them of an additional nine free throws that could have swung the opener. Then, in the final seconds of a one-possession game, a series of controversial calls resulted in a frustrated Chris Paul earning an ejection and a technical foul that ended any last chance of salvaging the first of what everyone expected to be many close games.
By Game 5, the Rockets had tied the series and were staring at a prime opportunity to take a 3-2 lead against the defending champions for the second year in a row. Durant suffered his left calf strain with 14 minutes left and his Warriors leading 68-65. They entered the fourth quarter tied, and then Stephen Curry outscored James Harden 12-5 en route to a five-point win that swung the series Golden State’s way.
Even then, Houston had a chance to tie the series at home and force a Game 7 against a reeling roster without its best player. The Rockets led by seven early in the fourth quarter and still held a slim margin with seven minutes to play, but Curry scored 18 points on six shots the rest of the way, and Houston had no answer.
In retrospect, it seems like the Raptors would have had little problem with Houston in the Finals, but who’s to say how emboldened a Rockets team that had finally shaken its Warriors ghosts would have been had they not blown so many chances.
Eastern Conference finals, Game 3: Double-OT
The final nine seconds of regulation in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Raptors and Bucks were a blur. Khris Middleton missed an ill-advised contested 3-pointer that would have given Milwaukee the lead. Pascal Siakam missed two free throws that would have sealed the win for Toronto. And Middleton put back his own miss, redeeming himself, at least long enough to force overtime.
It took the Raptors two overtimes to dispose of a Bucks team that saw Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe shoot a combined 11 of 48 from the field. Toronto guards Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell fouled out in the fourth quarter, and a single point from any of Milwaukee’s starters in the first overtime would have buried Toronto in a 3-0 series hole that would have been awfully tough to dig out of.
Instead, Leonard scored the final eight of his 36 points in the second OT to salvage a 118-112 victory. That win bolstered Toronto’s confidence, just as his game-winner did, and the result was five straight victories that spanned Game 1 of the Finals.
NBA Finals, Game 5: Kevin Durant’s torn Achilles
Durant was carving up the Raptors for the 12 minutes he was on the court for Game 5 of the Finals. He made his first three 3-pointers and staked the Warriors to an early six-point lead it turns out they desperately needed. Then, he ruptured his right Achilles trying to take Serge Ibaka off the dribble with 10 minutes left in the second quarter, altering the course of the Finals and the NBA for years to come.
Golden State held on to win, thanks to some timely shooting from Curry and Klay Thompson down the stretch. But what might have happened if Durant’s Achilles had held up, if he hadn’t been so taxed in his first stint back from the calf strain, if he had served only as a spot-up shooter rather than a playmaker — if, if, if.
We will never know if Durant’s presence, even at less than full strength, would have been enough to overcome the Raptors in Games 6 and 7, but he sure would have helped and that is all we need to debate this outcome for the decades to come.
NBA Finals, Game 6: Klay Thompson’s torn ACL
Thompson was enjoying one of those special Klay nights in Game 6. He had 28 points on 12 shots with 14 minutes left in another do-or-die game. That’s when he landed awkwardly after Danny Green tried to block his breakaway layup attempt.
Thompson shook off what turned out to be a torn ACL, sunk a pair of free throws for his 29th and 30th points, giving the Warriors an 85-80 edge. He even hopped back on defense, seemingly readily to keep playing if DeMarcus Cousins hadn’t committed a foul that allowed the Warriors to get him off the court. Even then, Thompson reportedly told coach Steve Kerr, “Just a two-minute rest. I’ll be ready.”
He wasn’t. He was gone for the game, the series and probably at least until February. It’s hard to imagine there weren’t more 3-pointers in Thompson’s quiver, just waiting to be unleashed in a game Golden State still led with 4:15 remaining.
NBA Finals, Game 6: Curry’s miss
Toronto was tight. Danny Green threw away a potential game-sealing possession, giving the Warriors a chance to win with 9.6 seconds remaining in Game 6, losses of Durant and Thompson be damned. Kerr drew up a play Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens has used many times before, lobbing the inbounds pass to Draymond Green in the post on the weak side, where a curling Curry steps into a good look.
The whole world thought Curry’s shot was headed for the net. It’s what he does. The best shooter ever got a clean look at the basket with his season on the line.
“I just thought it was in,” Kerr said in the aftermath. “I always think every shot Steph takes is going in. But they don't all go in. But what a warrior, no pun intended. Steph was getting hounded this entire series. Toronto did a great job on him sending two, three people at him, hounding him and harassing him. And especially without Klay to rely on in that fourth quarter, I thought he got a little worn down.”
If that shot falls, Golden State leads 113-111, and Leonard must face a deafening Oracle Arena crowd. We’ve seen his miracle work before, but who knows. Instead, the Warriors scrambled for a loose ball, as precious seconds fell off the clock. In the end, Draymond was forced to call a timeout he didn’t have with 0.9 seconds left, just to give the two-time defending champs a prayer that went unanswered.
It would have been fascinating to see the Warriors go back to Toronto without Durant and Thompson. The Raptors blew their first close-out shot in Game 5, nearly lost to Golden State’s MASH unit in Game 6, and they would have had everything to lose in Game 7. Leonard was human in Games 5 and 6, and he too had been nursing a leg injury for weeks. We have seen how quickly things change.
But they didn’t for Toronto. The bounces fell their way, like on Lowry’s wild fadeaway with two minutes left on Thursday. These moments and so many more worked in their favor over the past two months, and often that’s what it takes to be a champion. If any other team had emerged victorious, they too would have had a series of fortunate events that paved the way to a title. Enjoy this, Toronto.
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