In September 2018, I wrote an article titled, “The Raptors Will Win the East – Bet On It,” in which I predicted the Toronto Raptors would challenge the dynastic Golden State Warriors for the Larry O’ Brien trophy. While I did not expect to see Patrick McCaw become the first player since Shaq and Kobe to win three consecutive NBA championships, I saw the roster structure as the perfect mix of offensive and defensive star power, supplemented with the much-needed depth to throw different looks at players like Stephen Curry. While it may feel strange to hear “NBA champions” and not have it followed by the “Golden State Warriors,” the trophy now resides in a new home, and a new country, for the first time in the team’s history.
It all starts with Kawhi Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP. No surprises here, as we all knew prior to the season his play was going to decide the Raptors’ fate. But did anyone anticipate Leonard having one of the greatest postseasons we have ever seen?
After missing 73 games due to injury in his last season with the Spurs, Leonard’s leadership and character were doubted, as media and fans questioned the veracity of his injury. A season later, we are hearing Leonard being compared to the likes of LeBron James and Michael Jordan, after his sensational playoff run in which he put up the 3rd most points in a single NBA playoffs, just behind James and Jordan.
So, the underlying question here: Did we just witness the all-time greatest playoff performance we have ever seen from Kawhi Leonard? There is no simple answer to that question, as it is basically impossible to compare two postseasons in completely different eras. It is for certain that the 2019 playoffs cemented Leonard’s legacy as an all-time great, as he put up 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.7 blocks per game on his way through the Eastern Conference, which dethroned the Warriors and denied their three-peat.
In a postseason ripe with memorable moments, such as Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater against the 76ers, or his fastbreak dunk on Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard inserted himself back into the discussion of best player in the world.
Toronto’s first NBA championship was nowhere close to a one-man show. In a team full of unsung heroes, the one that shined the brightest throughout the season was Pascal Siakam. The probable choice for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, the 25-year old began playing basketball when he was just sixteen. After coming off the bench in his first two seasons in the NBA, he became an essential piece to winning an NBA championship in his third season, averaging 19.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in the playoffs. It was clear from his Game 1 performance in which he scored 32 points on 14-17 shooting, and against Draymond Green at that, Siakam was going to have an enormous impact on the Finals.
One of the biggest critiques of the Raptors prior to the season was their lack of a second scoring option, as Kyle Lowry is more of a pass-first point guard. Siakam stepping up took pressure off Leonard and made the Raptors even more versatile and dominant offensively, something no one saw coming. Just take Game 6 of the NBA Finals, as Siakam drained the biggest bucket of his short career with 30 seconds left, getting by Draymond Green and putting up a floater to extend the lead to three. This proved to be a game-sealing shot to give the Raptors their first NBA championship in their first Finals appearance.
While no one foresaw Siakam’s outburst, it was clear that the Raptors were going to be a defensive juggernaut just by looking at the team on paper early in the season. Their ability to switch everything and their versatility to go from a small lineup to a big lineup played a huge part in stifling the volatile Warriors offense. In the Finals, we never saw one of those patented runs that the Golden State Warriors of old used to go on to blow the doors wide open, and this is completely due to Nick Nurse’s coaching genius and the dynamic Raptors defense.
In my article last September, I guaranteed the Raptors would be a top-5 defensive team in the league. They backed up my statement, posting the fifth best defensive rating in the regular season and fourth best in the playoffs. Nurse spent his first season in Toronto experimenting with different rotations defensively, seeing what worked and what didn’t.
Led by Kawhi Leonard’s Jordan-esque on-ball defense, Nurse utilized the length of Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka all season long to suffocate opponents and get into passing lanes. The ability to switch everything stems from almost every Raptor’s capability to slide down and guard their unnatural position, whether it be Danny Green guarding a forward or Siakam guarding a smaller player.
Effort also matters. In prior Finals, we saw players become lethargic defensively. Take the Cleveland Cavaliers in the past two years. One lazy play from LeBron James or (someone else) would result in countless breakdowns, leading to three-point daggers into the hearts of the Cavs. With this Raptors team, however, they brought their effort every single playoff game.
While Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson did get hurt, Nurse adjusted the Raptors defense throughout the series to play whoever was in front of them. When Steph Curry was the only viable offensive threat on the floor, Nurse made a ballsy move in Game 2 by switching to a box-and-one defense to shut down Curry and take the ball out of his hands. With this defense, the Raptors went on a 10-0 run in Game 2 before Iguodala’s game-clinching three to put the game to bed. While the Raptors lost this game, it proved effective, leading to Nurse pulling it out of his back pocket in future games.
Perhaps the most underrated move of the regular season was the Raptors trading for Marc Gasol at the trade deadline. Offensively, it gave the Raptors a career 36.3% three-point shooter to open up the floor for others, as well as a great passer at the center position. The Raptors moved to first in the NBA in team 3-point shooting and passing efficiency after Gasol arrived in Toronto. While he didn’t put up gaudy numbers, his impact was huge especially on the defensive end, as Toronto had the third best defensive rating in the league after the trade deadline. It gave Nurse options at the center position, as he could choose from the faster, quicker Ibaka, or the bigger, smarter Gasol on the defensive end. The Raptors ability to throw different looks at opponents kept them on their heels.
All season long, different Raptors players stepped up. Lowry had 15 points in the first quarter of Game 6 in the Finals. Fred VanVleet exploded in the second half of the playoffs and played stellar defense on Stephen Curry all series long. Danny Green shot a career high 45.5% from three in the regular season.
Marc Gasol. Serge Ibaka. Pascal Siakam. Norman Powell. Obviously, Kawhi Leonard. The whole season was a total team effort, a masterpiece of a roster put together by Masai Ujiri. Now, they’re the 2019 NBA champions.
Raptors fans, ignore the outside noise from the media and the question marks about Kawhi Leonard’s impending free agency. Go savor these moments.