TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions.
With a 114-110 victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA Finals Thursday night, the Raptors capped a dramatic series filled with twists and turns, lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.
In a game totally in keeping with the tense, taut nature of this entire best-of-seven affair, the Raptors stormed out to an early lead, thanks to embattled point guard Kyle Lowry, who scored Toronto’s first 11 points of the game. But the Warriors quickly battled back and the teams went back and forth, racking up 14 lead changes in the first half alone.
Eventually, the Raptors managed to pull ahead thanks to some clutch shotmaking by Fred VanVleet, whose triple from the top of the key with 3:44 remaining put Toronto ahead for good, and sent the Raptors on their way to the title so many thought this team would never win.
Just a year ago, Toronto was reeling from being drummed out of the playoffs for a third straight time by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Raptors had fired their coach and were contemplating blowing up the roster. They traded for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in the summer, then added Marc Gasol at the trade deadline.
The Raptors — through a combination of timing and circumstance — formed the best defensive unit Golden State has seen during its run to five straight NBA Finals. They thwarted the Warriors, blunted their runs, stymied the kinds of surges that have overwhelmed opponents in so many games.
That was always especially true here at Oracle Arena, where Golden State has been so dominant during this dynasty. And yet, with Thursday night’s win, Toronto swept all four games it played in this building this season — the most obvious example of just how different this Raptors team is from the ones that came before it.
Of course, the story of Toronto’s defense — and its triumph in this series — can’t be told without including Kevin Durant‘s presence for just 11 minutes and 57 seconds of it.
After missing the first four games, Durant returned for Game 5. When he planted his right foot to drive past Raptors big man Serge Ibaka on the right wing at the 9:51 mark of the second quarter, he crumpled to the ground, rupturing his Achilles tendon.
Then Klay Thompson, who had missed Game 3 with a hamstring strain, went down with a knee injury late in the third quarter of Game 6. While the Warriors maintained the lead for a while — and were ahead at multiple points in the fourth quarter — eventually the battle of attrition became too much to overcome.
But it isn’t fair to Toronto, and its accomplishments, to label this as the Raptors winning because Durant and Thompson were hurt. Toronto was battle-tested and deep, filled with veteran players who knew their roles, and a team that knew what it was fighting for. The Raptors emerged from two knockdown, dragout fights in the prior two rounds, better for the experience and fully formed into the team they knew they could be. They were fresher, deeper, hungrier and — yes — better.
And, after being tied with the hobbled Warriors at 101 with 4:00 remaining, Toronto outscored Golden State 13-9 the rest of the way to ensure this series didn’t have to go back to Scotiabank Arena for a Game 7 Sunday night.
The Raptors earned every bit of this. When they got blown out by the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they were declared extinct. The same thing happened when they were blown out by the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and again when Toronto failed to close out both Game 2 and Game 5 of these NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena — both games the Raptors could have easily won.
Each time, though, Toronto refused to return to the “same old Raptors” they had always been. Part of that comes from the fact that these are not the same old Raptors. Kawhi Leonard is not DeMar DeRozan. Danny Green is not Terrence Ross. Marc Gasol is not Jonas Valanciunas. Nick Nurse is not Dwane Casey.
Part of it, though, comes from experience. The players who have been in Toronto for the past few seasons — Lowry, Siakam, Ibaka, VanVleet and Powell — have tasted playoff disappointment. Lowry, in particular, had been one of the pillars — alongside Casey and DeRozan — of both the good and bad parts of the past few years north of the border. So it was fitting that, on this night, he had the game of his life, scoring the first 11 points of the game, finishing the first half with 21 points, six rebounds and six assists and going on to post totals of 26, seven and 10.
Before this series began, Ibaka said he still felt bitter about letting the Warriors come back from down 3-1 in the 2016 Western Conference Finals when he was still with the Oklahoma City Thunder – robbing him of a chance to return to the NBA Finals. Gasol, meanwhile, became the face of the “Grit ‘n’ Grind” Grizzlies, but that team, too, could never quite measure up to the elite teams in the West. Leonard saw his brilliant run in San Antonio end in confusion and anger on both sides last year. Green was used as salary filler to make Leonard’s exit from San Antonio take place.
Throughout these playoffs, all of them, at different times, stepped up and helped propel these Raptors along, and helped lift this franchise to a place that it never seemed like it could reach.
It is Golden State that, during this Steve Kerr Era, has proclaimed “Strength In Numbers” as its mantra. In this series, though, it was Toronto that had the deeper, stronger, more versatile roster — and it was that which ultimately pushed the Raptors over the finish line.
But it was Siakam who couldn’t handle a pass from Danny Green — after a pair of Stephen Curry free throws — that gave Golden State the ball back with 9.6 seconds remaining, and a chance to win the game with any basket.
In the end, it wasn’t meant to be. Andre Iguodala‘s heave to Draymond Green set up a shovel pass to Curry, who got a clean look for what would have been an incredible turnaround. But rather than dropping through the net, like the sellout crowd here was hoping for, it clanged off the back iron, and bounded away as one player after another dove on the floor in pursuit.
Ultimately, Golden State was called for a technical for attempting to call a timeout when they had none. And, after the final formalities were dispensed with, Toronto found itself with the championship it has waited more than two decades to get.