After years of hitting the same wall, the Toronto Raptors finally broke through behind the strength of their superstar and balanced collection of co-stars.
It’s a novel idea that the Toronto Raptors could be NBA champions, but it shouldn’t be altogether surprising that they arrived here. The Raptors were among the league’s best teams all season, often hiding in plain sight, and showed the right blend of balance, resilience and dominance throughout the postseason that has come to epitomize the character of a prototypical NBA champion. They were elite on both offense and defense, led by one of the steadiest and most dominant players on the planet and a smart, versatile cast of weapons around him. Was it that hard to see this team coming?
Even so, it took a great many twists and turns for Toronto to get here. From trading a franchise icon for an aloof superstar, to shaking up the roster again at the trade deadline, to shedding the reputation of a team that was never quite good enough, the Raptors had little time to overcome significant obstacles for a team in search of a championship. The first game of the playoffs did little to dissuade skeptics of prior perceptions of this team; the second may have seemed too tight an escape for a team with aspirations as lofty as winning an NBA title. The Eastern Conference Finals started as ominously as a series possibly could. It takes a collection of talented and resolute players to weather those situations, time and again. By the time the Raptors met a hobbled Warriors team, they had little reason to fear anyone in their path.
Masai Ujiri’s decision to flip DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard wasn’t some great risk — the Raptors upgraded their roster without sacrificing much in return — but it did mark a definitive pivot point. Toronto’s bet would either pay off in full or set the course for a rebuild if it failed. Thursday night proved him correct, regardless of what decision Leonard makes this summer. These Raptors are an argument for hanging around and staying good, gradually modifying the roster in search of something great, and hoping it’s enough.
Kawhi Leonard’s brilliance shouldn’t overshadow the rest of the Raptors. Leonard worked his way into 22 points, 6 rebounds and a Finals MVP trophy Thursday night, becoming the third player in league history to earn that hardware with two different teams. He imposed his skill and physicality on the contest without domineering Toronto’s offense and played arguably his best defensive game of the series both on the ball and as a help defender. But the story of Game 6 was the Raptors’ supporting cast, who played well enough to nearly rid themselves of that distinction.
Fred VanVleet matched Leonard’s scoring output while playing 34 minutes of dogged defense on Steph Curry, and the Raptors couldn’t have stayed in the game or the series without his play when this series’ stakes were at their highest. Pascal Siakam artfully bookended his first career Finals with a 26-point, 10-rebound effort and never looked shaken — even when the floor of Oracle Arena seemed to rattle beneath his feet. When Marc Gasol’s heady passing and handsy defense didn’t seem to work, Serge Ibaka’s twisting hooks and vertical dynamism did (Gasol did yeoman’s work on the glass).
And Kyle Lowry, who has been through enough in Toronto to fully appreciate what luxuries Leonard, Gasol, Ibaka and VanVleet are, finally got his moment. The point guard set an early tone by scoring Toronto’s first 11 points and keeping the pressure on as Golden State slowly clawed their way back onto equal footing. Lowry capitalized on his openings early and created them late. He sought every crevice of the Warriors’ transition defense, pressed every advantage he could find and never hesitated to look for his own — all while finding the angles to hand out 10 assists. Down the stretch, the offense ran through Lowry, not Leonard, and he rewarded Nick Nurse’s trust by attacking DeMarcus Cousins on switches or otherwise piercing Golden State’s defense to create other opportunities. Eventually — finally — the basketball gods rewarded him with a soft roll late that kept Golden State at bay just long enough for Siakam, Leonard and that swarming defense to hold them off for good.
Lowry’s value has long been defined by the indefinable — the extra passes, defensive rotations and other Plays That Don’t Show Up in the Box Score that he consistently makes but never seem to resonate with those who don’t see them. Thursday night, he made certain that his contributions couldn’t be overlooked any longer.
Steph Curry’s gravity was on full display. No player in NBA history could have such an outsized impact on a Finals game while attempting just 17 shots. Curry did not have his best game, and the Raptors deserve credit for their relentless (and occasionally creative) approach toward defending him. Curry could not assert himself in his usual fashion by virtue of the bodies Toronto had and Golden State didn’t; defenses can more easily sell out on a star when there are so few threats around him. Still, blanketing Curry like the Raptors did comes at a cost in other areas of the floor. The bulk of Draymond Green’s 13 assists and Andre Iguodala’s 22 points came as a direct result of Curry drawing multiple defenders, finding the open man and letting the play unfold. Green, Cousins and Kevon Looney could forage for easy buckets with Curry creating a numbers advantage on every pick-and-roll or pin-down. Klay Thompson — arguably the second-greatest shooter in NBA history — walked into multiple catch-and-shoot 3s behind Curry’s wake.
Had Green capitalized on a handful more opportunities or Thompson played longer than 32 minutes, the score could just have easily gone the other way and the Warriors might have a chance to stave off elimination once more. Instead, Curry’s brilliance in this series will largely be lost to history. The highest-scoring playoff game of his career came in a losing effort and Golden State became so depleted as to mitigate any quantifiable measure of Curry’s value. Credit Toronto for making him work, but also appreciate Curry for exacting the same degree of effort from his defenders for six games.
This series complicates the offseason. With Durant on the shelf for a year and Klay Thompson’s ACL injury, Golden State’s two most important free agents will enter negotiations on shakier ground than previously anticipated. The Warriors will likely still offer each the most they can receive but may do so less confidently and more tentatively than they might have. If Durant and another team agree to a deal, they’ll do so with the understanding that Durant likely won’t step on an NBA court next season, which could affect how other free agents across the league perceive certain situations or an on-court partnership with Durant. (If Durant’s market is somehow depressed by his injury, it’s technically possible he could opt into his contract next season for $31.5 million.)
The Raptors, meanwhile, have an easy decision to make in offering Kawhi Leonard a supermax extension as soon as they possibly can. Leonard will consider other options, but Toronto has made as convincing a case to him as they possibly could have. How much weight does winning the Finals have in Leonard’s decision-making? Is the allure of a bigger (and warmer) market strong enough to persuade him? Is there any potential situation more conducive to winning in the near term than Toronto? These are the questions Leonard and the NBA world will consider in the coming weeks. For now, Leonard is firmly a Raptor, and deserves to take in as much of this moment as he can.