The Toronto Raptors are the 2018-19 NBA Champions. A phrase that many deemed impossible. A reality that most thought would be unattainable. When the franchise became encapsulated in the NBA, there was an overwhelming belief that failure would occur. Basketball in Canada, a country embedded in hockey culture and obsessed with baseball, would be doomed to fail.
Slowly but surely, basketball would gain recognition in the Great White North. The Toronto Raptors put people in place, such as general manager Masai Ujiri, to take the organization to a new pedestal of popularity. On Thursday Night, the last game to take place at Oracle Arena, the years of heartbreak, disappointment and failure would be put in the rear-view mirror. For the first time in NBA history, a franchise from Canada would hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The Toronto Raptors, led by a transcendent superstar, an experienced veteran, a rookie coach and heroic role players, at long last get to celebrate a championship. And the country of Canada has exploded into basketball pandemonium, a revolution that has shown no signs of slowing down.
Kawhi Leonard Quells Doubt and Critics
When the buzzer sounded, signaling the Toronto Raptors championship clinching 114-110 victory over the Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard raised his arms up. And offered a rare glimpse of emotion from the often expressionless figure. It was the culmination of a two year comeback from injury, where he has been ridiculed and called out for his tough character.
But the Raptors superstar quelled those stories with stellar performances throughout the postseason. Averaging 28.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.2 steals in the championship series, Leonard was awarded his second NBA Finals MVP of his career. Becoming one of three players to win this award with different teams.
“Last year, people thought I was either faking an injury or didn’t want to play for a team. That was disappointing to go me that that was out in the media, because I love the game of basketball,” said Kawhi after winning the championship. “It doesn’t matter what anybody has to say about me. I know who I am as a person, and I always trust yourself. That was my goal and my focus.”
For Kawhi, coming to Toronto was never his optimal choice. But with time, Leonard became more comfortable playing for the Raptors. The Toronto medical staff appealed to all his needs and wants, implementing the coveted “load management” policy. Fans may have been dubious at first about Kawhi. But over the course of the season, they saw his ability to relentlessly defend and effectively hit the jump shot.
Kawhi Lives Up to MVP Persona
Kawhi may have captured the heartbeat of Canada with his epic buzzer beater in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers. Or shutting down the likely NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals. And putting up 36 points in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on the road at Golden State.
What sets Leonard a part in the eyes of a raucous Toronto Raptors fan base is his innate aptitude to conquer adversity. Not just on the basketball court but in his life. When he was younger, his Father was shot and murdered at the car wash he worked at in Compton. The next day, Kawhi insisted on playing in his basketball game, only to fall victim to the emotions of his Father’s tragic death.
It is why the public sees Kawhi as quiet and private. No social media presence, very few one-on-one interviews with the media. It is this stoic persona that provides Kawhi the solace and inner peace to focus on playing basketball at the highest level. Whenever Kawhi takes the court, he is having the time of his life. We can revel in Leonard’s ability to quell the adversity that comes his way, to put on an inspiring playoff run that afforded the Raptors the franchise’s first world championship.
“The difficulties I’ve had gave me a
sense and feel that life and basketball are two different
things,” affirmed Kawhi. “Like I always say, this is basketball; just go out there
and have fun. These are going to be the best years of my life, playing this game.”
Kyle Lowry Elevates Guard Status in Clinching Game 6
When Kawhi first received word he would be going to Toronto, he immediately texted the one person impacted most by this move. Kyle Lowry, who had carried the load alongside Demar DeRozan for the Raptors throughout this decade, would now be competing with an enigmatic figure who was coming off an injury. Kawhi was straight with Kyle in their first of many texting conversations:
“I said 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.”
Initially, the transition was difficult for Lowry. The untenable emotions were high, particularly towards Masai Ujiri, who approved sending DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs. But Lowry, the emotional backbone of this Raptors team, immediately went to work. He wanted to prove that the Raptors weren’t just a pretender. That they could contend for the ultimate prize of an NBA Championship.
After Game 5 of the NBA Finals, where Lowry had a chance to close the series and missed the game-winning shot, the Raptors point guard immediately went back to work. The big takeaway for Lowry was his drive to be aggressive. And that his team was even-keeled emotionally after the loss, knowing that they still had two chances to win the championship.
When the rest of the team was struggling to shoot, Kyle Lowry would seize the moment in Game 6. He started the Raptors on an 11-0 run, generating all of the team’s 11 points. His hustle on defense and aggression from shooting beyond the arc gave the Raptors a much-needed boost against the dominant Golden State back court. With Lowry’s game-high 26 points, the longest serving Raptor could finally be jubilant in victory.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” said Lowry post game. “I am extremely hard on myself. And I’m happy to be able to say I’m a champion.”
A Full, Complete Toronto Championship Effort
The mold of this Toronto Raptors championship team isn’t like victorious teams in the past. There was no flashy superstar like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Or a super team, like the Golden State Warriors, who had previously won three of the last four years.
This Raptors squad was composed of a quiet superstar with players who exhibited greatness when gelled in a team. And led by a coach in Nick Nurse, whose arduous coaching journey in college and the D-league, prepared him to become the third rookie coach in NBA history to win a championship.
The stories of rookie success, like Pascal Siakam’s 26 points in Game 6, provide a blueprint for the team’s identity for the future. Undrafted Fred VanVleet, with his stout defense on Golden State’s Steph Curry, demonstrated the power of unlikely heroes to become playoff basketball legends.
But the coronation of the Toronto Raptors is a testament to the fans and supporters. The success of the Raptors did not just ignite an energy within the city of Toronto. It set the country of Canada on a path to becoming a basketball nation. Where more resources towards training future Canadian basketball players can be seen as a viable investment.
And the prevalence of Jurassic Park viewing areas across the country highlights the unifying power of basketball to bring people together from all walks of life. In times of difficulty, it is the transcending spirit of buying into the success of a sports team that gives a nation purpose and happiness.
The Toronto Raptors have elated a city and country, yearning for success in major sports teams. We The North are officially now champions and this championship must be fully savored and never forgotten.