Enjoy this one, Canada. Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals was a remarkable night of basketball, and the Toronto Raptors are a remarkable basketball team. These Finals and the victors that emerged on Thursday night were also weird as hell, so savor the champagne a little longer, because we will never see a champion like this again.
It was impossible to imagine the steps that would lead to this point when Bryan Colangelo traded for Kyle Lowry to back up Jose Calderon in July 2012. It was no clearer last season, when Masai Ujiri was staring at a teardown of a team that had reached its ceiling and gotten kicked down to the ground by LeBron James again.
Then came Kawhi Leonard, whose contract status and absence for all but nine games in 2107-18 with a mysterious leg injury left his trade value in question. Under heavy criticism, Ujiri dealt the face of his franchise — Lowry’s best friend DeMar DeRozan — for the long-shot possibility that he could sell Leonard on Toronto.
And he put it all on the shoulders of Nick Nurse, a rookie head coach who took over a 59-win team from fired Coach of the Year winner Dwane Casey. No pressure.
These things don’t happen. The undersized and overfed point guard doesn’t mature into a championship-caliber floor general overnight, but there was Kyle Lowry with a title on the line, making his first four shots and singlehandedly staking the Raptors to an 11-2 lead. He was nails all night, and nobody can take this away from him.
“There are a lot of guys who have this same journey, and they haven't been able to get to this point,” Lowry told reporters after the 114-110 series-clinching win. “I'm just so happy to be able to be a part of it and to say I'm an NBA champion. I don't take it for granted at all. I know how hard it's been, how hard it is to get here.”
These things don’t happen. A top-three player doesn’t become available at a discount rate, not for the Raptors — a team accustomed to seeing its basketball heroes stumble down the aisle before leaving them at the altar. Yet, there was Leonard, the load management All-Star who everyone figured had one New Balance out the door before he ever stepped foot in Toronto, who instead laid waste to the best the Eastern Conference had to offer before tearing the heart out of another dynasty en route to his second Finals MVP honor. Oh, and that shot against the Philadelphia 76ers? That shouldn’t go in. That’s the stuff of fiction.
“I wanted to make history here and that's all I did,” said Leonard. “I’m still playing basketball no matter what jersey I have on. The guys here have made runs in the playoffs before I came, so I know they were a talented team. I just came in with the right mindset: Let's go out and win ballgames. I texted Kyle the day I got traded and told him, ‘Let's go out and do something special. I know your best friend left, I know you're mad, but let's make this thing work out. And we are here today.”
These things don’t happen. You don’t put a former Rio Grande Valley Vipers coach in charge of the most important season in franchise history — one with a rebuild waiting behind a title mandate. But there was Nurse, steering his team to three victories in Oracle Arena en route to unseating the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. Granted, the Warriors were without Kevin Durant for all but 12 minutes and Klay Thompson for five-plus quarters, but Golden State had lost thrice total at home in their four previous Finals trips, and this was their last stand.
“I would hope it inspires some people that are in those situations to keep working,” Nurse told reporters of his unconventional road to the Raptors. “I always say that all those jobs meant the world to me at the time, winning with Birmingham in '96, winning with Rio Grande Valley, whatever year that was. And those games and jobs meant the world to me and I loved all those jobs. I think you can't do very good work if you don't love what you're doing. I never really got discouraged. I didn't really care at the level I was coaching at, I was just trying to learn and get better.”
These things don’t happen. You don’t build a champion by merely adding Leonard to a roster without a single lottery pick. Three seasons into his NBA career, late first-round pick Pascal Siakam shouldn’t be a two-way force against the accomplished cornerstones of a dynasty. Undrafted free agent Fred VanVleet isn’t supposed to be the best player off the bench in the entire playoffs. Yet, those two combined for 48 points in the close-out Game 6, same as Leonard and Lowry, only more efficient.
“None of our guys, probably other than Kawhi, are in that big-boy club or the fan-boy club of the NBA,” said VanVleet. “We got guys who had to get it the long way, who had to get it out of the mud, who had to get it against the grain. And we got a team full of them coming from all different places, all walks of life, all different life stories to get to this moment.”
These things don’t happen. You don’t make a midseason trade for one of the game’s best passing big men, a former Defensive Player of the Year, who seamlessly serves as the missing piece on your top-ranked offense and defense. It takes time to jell, unless you’re a Gasol brother, apparently. Marc wasn’t integral in Game 6. He didn’t need to be. He laid the groundwork in their three previous wins.
“You can make excuses and say like, ‘Oh, it will take some time,’” Gasol said after the game. “But at the same time we all invested, and we all thought let's help one another, let's be the championship team that we can be. That doesn't mean that you are going to accomplish it, but the mindset was there and the will was there.”
You win in the NBA with a superstar at his peak. From Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Leonard officially added his name to that list after previously winning 2014 Finals MVP honors with Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs. Almost all of those other guys shared the burden with another Hall of Famer, if not more, but it remains to be seen whether anyone else from the 2019 Raptors will come close.
Nobody thought Leonard would be here so soon after missing almost an entire season with a quadriceps injury. If they did, the league’s glamor teams, namely the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, might have tried pricing Toronto out of the bidding. They didn’t, and the Raptors did, so they are champions for the first time.
Good luck tracing all the steps it took for them to get here and finding a blueprint.
There will be other first-time champions, other expansion teams tasting glory for the first time. But it will never be like this again, not with an entire country rallying behind a hired gun who convinced a bunch of misfits they could topple a dynasty. We may never even see this team again, depending about free agency, but that’s a discussion for a different day. Keep the party going, Canada. This one is special.
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