The North Rises to the NBA Mountain Top: The Biggest Gamble on the League’s Biggest Enigma Pays Off

The North Rises to the NBA Mountain Top: The Biggest Gamble on the League’s Biggest Enigma Pays Off

By Jon Whited

Masai Ujiri, Kawhi Leonard, Nick Nurse, Fred Van Vleet’s baby, Drake, and the rest of the Raptors organization DID IT. It was a team effort and they needed everyone to pull off this miracle. This incredible 2019 Raptors season and playoff run will always be remembered for Kawhi Leonard, and rightfully so; He has now cemented himself as the best player in the game (at least until next season starts). But this series, particularly Game 6, was won by the Raptors supporting cast. In Game 6, the Raptors got a team-high 26 from both Siakam and Lowry with VanVleet contributing 22 more off the bench in 34 great minutes. Leonard, the now 2-time Finals MVP (1st to ever pull it off in both conferences, 3rd to do it with two different teams) still contributed with 22 points of his own on 7-16 shooting, while Ibaka added 15 points. If you include the 3 points from Marc Gasol, that is all the scoring the Raptors would require to capture their first title.  

During the 2018 offseason, after years of regular season success followed by playoff frustration in the relatively weak East, the Raptors GM, Ujiri, realized he could no longer bring this same core back. Human beings wired like Ujiri, a great competitor in his own right, won’t settle for mediocracy or really anything less than the ultimate…a title. And to achieve that, Ujiri knew changes were needed. Einstein famously said, “The definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting different results,” and Ujiri knew it was insane to run it back with a Derozan/Lowry-led team and expect them to win a title or even reach the Finals. Taking a page out of another great GM’s playbook, Sam Presti’s risk to trade for potentially one year of Paul George, the Raptors counterpart took a similar risk on Kawhi Leonard. Both stars were expected to jump to LA after one year (Kawhi still is). The difference is that Leonard can win you the Finals as the only All-Star on the team (sorry PG – I love you but you aren’t on that level). Trading Derozan for one year of Kawhi and Danny Green (an important addition for Toronto – six 3’s in Game 3), seems like a no-brainer now but with his injury and free agency risk, it was far from a sure thing at the time. Capturing a title in this one-year window, makes this trade 1000% worth it and makes the gamble seem like a brilliant calculated risk now.

But hey, what’s the difference between a gamble and a calculated risk, anyways? Just luck, right? And just like almost every NBA season, the title is captured through some grace of luck, whether it be injury, matchups, unlikely heroes, or four unforgettable bounces on the rim. And this 2019 Raptors squad was no exception; look no further than the Warriors injuries (Klay, KD, Boogie, Looney), the game winning bounces in the Philly series, and VanVleet playing and shooting out of his mind for 3 weeks. I am in no way diminishing what this team has accomplished, but these are all outliers and if we simulated the playoffs 10,000 times, this specific scenario wouldn’t repeat itself often, if again. But these playoffs DID break that way and the Raptors were able to overcome some of their own bad luck (a tough path to the title and Kawhi’s injury) and bring Canada it’s first basketball title.

This championship run reminds me of the 2011 Mavs title run (one superduper star surrounded by a great supporting cast with a great defense and coach overcoming an all-time team). It will go down as one of the great all-time, individual playoff performances with Kawhi averaging 31/9/4 on 49/38/88 shooting splits (62% true shooting), scoring the 3rd most points ever in one playoff run (behind MJ and Lebron of course), all while shutting down all-world offensive talents on the defensive end in an insane 939 brutally, hard-fought minutes. When you consider the impact on both ends over the course of the entire playoffs while capturing a title, only a couple of Jordan runs compare.

What Kawhi just accomplished is some pantheon-level shit, and Toronto should build him a statue in Jurassic Park regardless of the future. Trust me, coming from a Cubs fan, sometimes one title is all you need, and the city of Toronto feels that way right now. They don’t care if Kawhi leaves; I mean they obviously want him back, but this nostalgic feeling is worth it either way. If he does pack his bags, they will wish him well and remember him fondly (just like Spurs fans, who also won a title because of him – oh wait, no, that’s not true). All of this makes Masai Ujiri feel like a god right now – and he should. It took serious cajones to make that gamble and serious smarts to construct the supporting cast around him (see finding Siakam and VanVleet late in draft and the Marc Gasol trade).

This Finals was one of the most dramatic in recent memory. We had it all, the Durant injury and second injury, same to be said about Klay, the Warriors quest to win 4 out of 5 titles (unsuccessful), the Raptors quest to convince Leonard to stay (success TBD), Drake’s quest to be the most popularizing fan of all-time (successful), and Mark Stevens’ quest to be the douchiest (successful). And that barely even covers the basketball that was actually played on the court over the last two weeks. With the exception of Game 3, these games brought the dramatic flare as well, the unconscious Kawhi 10-2 run in Game 5, every VanVleet moment, the “Siakam Game” in Game 1, the Iguodala dagger three-pointer in Game 2, pantheon performances from Leonard in Games 2-4, the epic Warriors’ comeback in Game 5.

And Game 6 was not short on drama either; the only letdown is it didn’t lead to a winner-take-all Game 7. Thursday night, the drama was sprinkled throughout (unfortunately including Klay Thompson injury drama late in the third quarter) as this game would go back and forth from start to finish. Kyle Lowry silenced all his haters as he came out on fire finishing the first quarter with 15 points on 5/6 FG, including 4/4 3FG. The Warriors would not back down though, as Klay would score 10 straight during one stretch for Golden State, allowing them to keep pace with the Raptors throughout the quarter with the score at the end of the frame, 33-32, the North. In the second quarter, we would see both teams continue to throw punches at each other as the game would remain tight throughout with Golden State taking a one point lead into the half. Lowry finished with 20 of his 26 in the first while Thompson added 18 of his 30 in limited minutes to pace the Warriors. 24 minutes from basketball history either way: an epic Game 7 or the first Canadian title in NBA history.

In the third quarter, we would have the stars lead the way for both teams, with Leonard and Siakam and Steph and Klay carrying the load, respectively. That was until 2:22 left in the quarter, when Thompson came down awkwardly on his left knee after a dunk attempt where he ferociously attacked the basket. With the score 83-80, he would go down and look out for the count. But we all know the warrior that Klay is, so there was no doubting his comeback. That was until we saw him headed back to the locker room with two free throws still to be shot. By rule, an NBA player must shoot the free throws after a foul and injury to continue in the game. And as a true warrior would, Klay strutted back out on the court and effortlessly knocked down two free throws before Cousins committed an intentional foul to get him out of the game and the attention he needed (those two points turned out to be huge). If Thompson had it his way, he would have stayed on the court and gutted it out with his teammates. He wouldn’t have it any other way, but the medical team knew the severity and protected him from himself (the Warriors medical staff needed a win after everyone shit on them because KD had a freak injury). Despite the loss of Thompson, the Warriors would cling to a two-point lead at the end of the 3rd, 88-86.

If you thought the Warriors had to dig deep in the waning minutes of Game 5, you were right, but one could argue that, without Thompson, they would have to dig even deeper in the fourth quarter of Game 6. Steph and Draymond would have to step up even more as the primary shot creators for this wounded squad and hold off one more push from Kawhi and Toronto. If the Raptors were going to pull the title out on the road, at Oracle, on the last game of its existence, against a dynastic team, down 2, it was going to be on the shoulders of Kawhi Leonard, right? Wrong. Unbelievably, Leonard would go scoreless during the fourth period with the exception of three meaningless free throws with 0.9 seconds left and the outcome of the game decided. Instead, the fourth quarter would belong to Fred VanVleet, and why wouldn’t it? It’s his world, we’re all just living in it, right? VanVleet would burst into flames, knocking down three three balls to go along with three free throws, giving him 12 points for the quarter (22 for the game).

Despite VanVleet’s hot streak and Toronto’s swammering defense on Curry, the Warriors hung tight and with 9.6 seconds remaining, they had a chance at a game winner to send this series back to Toronto for a decisive Game 7. And the Warriors couldn’t ask for a better look than the one they got (see below).

Once again, Steve Kerr drew up a great play on this inbounds. Knowing that Curry would attract all kinds of attention coming to the ball to receive the inbounds, he used that action as a decoy. Instead of inbounding the ball to the obvious choice in Steph, Iguodala sent a tough cross-court pass to Draymond (the Warriors almost turned it over there due to the great Toronto defense). Once the ball is inbounds, Steph changes direction and comes off a Boogie back screen coming open on the right wing for a half second. The Raptors couldn’t have played much better defense on a great play call with Ibaka scrambling to contest the Curry shot as best he can, but the Warriors absolutely couldn’t have asked for a better look in that situation or really any situation. You had the greatest shooter of all-time getting off a clean look with his feet set, you’ll take that shot from that play every time.

And that’s the difference between being a champion and being considered a failure. It’s that small; it’s a game of inches, literally. Inches to the left and we would remember that shot as one of the greatest in basketball history, but it clanked off the rim. So, we remember the incredible Kawhi run and Fred VanVleet instead. Is that fair? Probably not. But that is the world we live in and that’s how small the margin of error is in the NBA playoffs. Just think the Raptors could easily have gone down to the Sixers if one of those four bounces carroms off in a slightly different direction, but using his superhuman touch, Kawhi got the roll and the rest was history.

Even though, right now, everyone wants to put an asterisk on this title due to the Warrior injuries, this chapter in NBA history will go down as one of the most extraordinary runs in NBA playoff history with Kawhi and the Raptors toppling the immortal Warriors and that’s how it should be remembered (it’s sad but injuries unfortunately factor in every year). This chapter will also be remembered by one of the ballsiest moves from a general manager in recent NBA history. Both Leonard and Ujiri each deserve equal and ample credit for their performances.

This clip, from ESPN’s Rachel Nichols’ Instagram account, sums up Kawhi and this Raptors’ run perfectly.

The video shows Leonard and Lowry, together in bliss, shortly after the end of Game 6 as they sat down to chat with Nichols. It starts with Kawhi entering the room and Lowry asking him “How are you feeling?” To which Leonard responds, “Just limping around cuz I ain’t have to play anymore games.” And who can blame him after this grueling run playing with a seemingly injured leg. Leonard limped in with his NBA Finals MVP trophy and instinctively gave the hardware to Lowry as he truly believed the team’s point guard deserved to be the team’s MVP, being the longest tenured and greatest Raptor of all-time (unless Kawhi resigns). This video should teach all NBA teams a lesson: the “Secret” of basketball matters more than talent. Talent alone will only get you so far but team basketball wins championships and Masai Ujiri constructed the best basketball team this year centered around a potential one-year rental in Kawhi Leonard.

But the real lesson here is (as always): “Scared money don’t make no money” and nobody knows that better than Masai Ujiri and the Raptors, who hit the jackpot in 2019. We have no idea what the future holds for them or the rest of the league, but we can only hope 2020 brings us this much drama.

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