Steve Reacts: The 2018-19 Toronto Raptors

Lately, I’ve been on a reaction kick, meaning that I’ve blogged about my reactions to both the Kansas City Chiefs winning Super Bowl 54 and the Washington Nationals winning the 2019 World Series.

However, there was clinched championship that predates both of those by nearly seven months before the former and a little over three months before the latter. And as to which clinched championship that was, well it’s the 2019 NBA one that was clinched by the Toronto Raptors in six games against the reigning two-time NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

In a postseason where the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Milwaukee Bucks had the league’s best regular season record, the Warriors being crowned NBA champions on the day before it (the 2019 NBA postseason) began and the Houston Rockets out to finally dethrone the then-two-time NBA champions, almost nothing was said about the Raptors, despite having the 2014 NBA Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard on their side. But due to Leonard not seeing postseason action since Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals and the fact that the Raptors had a history of choking in the playoffs, it was valid to count them out.

But after overcoming an 0-1 series deficit against the Orlando Magic in the First Round by winning Games 2 through 5, getting a crucial Game 4 win against the Philadelphia Sixers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, getting four fortuitous bounces on Leonard’s historic final shot in Game 7 of that series against the Sixers, and overcoming an 0-2 deficit to beat Giannis and the Bucks in six games to claim the Eastern Conference championship, the Raptors became the first non-United States NBA franchise to advance to the NBA Finals. And not only would they be in that round because in addition, they would get home court advantage in that round against the Warriors of all teams, by virtue of sweeping the regular season series against the NBA champs to finish one game better than Steve Kerr’s bunch.

Heading into that series, the Warriors were minus Kevin Durant (right calf injury) indefinitely, along with planning to slowly work DeMarcus Cousins (torn quad) back into the rotation, thus the perfect opportunity for the Raptors to put them in an 0-1 hole to start the series. And of course, they did, thanks to Pascal Siakam looking like an even more athletic version of Karl Malone (if that’s even possible), by virtue of his team-high 32 points. 

Next up was Game 2. However, championship pedigree reared its boring head, as the Warriors were bailed out by Andre Iguodala’s late game-icing three-pointer to dash any hopes of a Raptors comeback. Onto Oracle for Games 3 and 4.

However, going back home tied at 1-1 came with a price for the NBA champs, as they lost Klay Thompson for Game 3 of that series to a hamstring injury, thus making Stephen Curry their sole consistent scoring threat. And I have to admit, Curry’s performance (47 points) in that game was valiant. But it wasn’t enough to overcome both the timely shooting of the Raptors and the balanced scoring (six Raptors scored in double figures) that they had. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget Serge Ibaka looking like Alonzo Mourning with six blocks in that game, as well as Danny Green’s epic chase down block of Quinn Cook. Raptors hand the Warriors their third home loss of the 2019 postseason to take a 2-1 series lead.

Game 4 was next and the Warriors welcomed back Thompson, in hopes that his return would energize them for a Game 4 victory. And while the Warriors seemed to look like they were going to run away with it in the first quarter, there was a certain number 2 on Toronto’s side that single-handedly kept them in the game to the point that they were only down six after the end of that quarter. The Raptors then outscored the Warriors 88-69 over the other three quarters of that game to win 105-92, in part because Curry was worn down from his Game 4 performance. Anyways, 3-1 series lead for the Raptors and onto Game 5.

Down 3-1 in the NBA Finals, the Warriors decided to bring back Durant for Game 5, in hopes that his presence would galvanize them into rallying from down 3-1 to win the series in seven games. And with how he and the Warriors looked early on, an easy win for the champs seemed pretty much certain. 

However, the two-time NBA Finals MVP went down in a hurry after falling to the court and subsequently grabbing the same right calf that caused him to miss the Warriors’ next nine playoff games following their Game 5 win against the Rockets. It was later reported to be a torn Achilles. Durant is done for the postseason and has a long road of rehabbing the injury ahead of him.

The Raptors slowly yet surely rallied throughout the remainder of the game and even led by six (103-97) late in the fourth quarter, with the hopes of winning it all in front of the home fans. However, The Splash Brothers outscored the Raptors 9-2 the rest of the way to force a Game 6 with a 106-105 victory. Back to Oracle Arena for the last ever game in that building.

After getting outplayed for the most part in the fortress known as Oracle Arena, the Warriors showed tremendous fight throughout Game 6, by not getting down by double digits at all. They even bottled up Leonard for most of that game, as he registered a series-low 22 points in that game. Plus, Thompson was putting a virtuoso performance in that game, by shooting over 50% from both the three-point line and the field overall to the tune of 28 points midway through the third quarter. However, he went down with a left knee injury (later reported to be a torn ACL) via a driving dunk attempt that resulted in Danny Green fouling him, by going for the shot block. By rule of not being allowed to come back to the court due to departing the game with injury, Thompson came back out to shoot the two free throws for his last two points of the game and season before going back to the Warriors locker room for an x-ray. And of course, he didn’t return.

Iguodala stepped up with 22 points, Cousins had 12 off the bench and Draymond Green had a triple double (11 points, 19 rebounds, 13 assists) to help make up for both Curry’s mostly subpar shooting performance and the absence of Thompson. However, they were clearly overmatched and under-manned, as the Raptors got key fourth quarter scoring from Fred VanVleet, along with timely baskets from Ibaka, Siakam and Kyle Lowry. Plus, they got two key free throws from Marc Gasol. 

However, Green’s late three-pointer to cut the Raptors’ lead to three made things interesting. And after a bad pass from the other Green (Danny) with 9.6 seconds remaining, the Warriors had a chance to take the lead. But thanks to Ibaka contesting Curry’s attempt at a go-ahead/possible game-winning three-pointer, the shot back-rimmed and eventually came to Leonard who then eventually lost it to Green (Draymond). And as for what happened next, Green called a timeout that the Warriors didn’t have (they were all out of timeouts), thus resulting in both a technical foul and excess timeout turnover, meaning that the Raptors got to shoot a technical free throw (Leonard successfully made it) and retain possession (Leonard made two more free throws after being fouled by Iguodala). Raptors lead 114-110 with 0.9 seconds remaining.

Of course, a four-point play in 0.9 seconds and with no timeouts is impossible, thus making the Warriors final shot (a 63-foot three-point attempt by Curry) absolutely pointless. Curry went on to miss that shot and badly. The series finally ends in six games and the NBA’s lone team from Canada are now NBA champions. And just like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with both the Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, and just like LeBron James with both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat, Leonard is an NBA Finals MVP with two different franchises, as he was named the 2019 NBA Finals MVP for flat out being the best player in that series. Leonard has since gone on to play for the other Los Angeles franchise, the Clippers.

Back on July 18, 2018, Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri engineered the trade that sent longtime franchise icon DeMar DeRozan and Jacob Poeltl to the San Antonio Spurs for Leonard and Green, the third of which was the biggest piece that the Raptors had gotten in return. And while Leonard was only with the Raptors for one season, it’s the best one-year rental of a player that was set to hit free agency the following off-season, as he is forever in Toronto sports lore for taking the Raptors to a place that they could never get to with DeRozan, Chris Bosh or Vince Carter. And he had excellent support from all the players that I mentioned throughout this entry, along with another Raptors player in Norman Powell. And while I didn’t mention other Raptors players in this entry, they too gave him excellent support. And how about Nick Nurse and the coaching job that he did in his first year as a head coach? I think the Raptors firing Dwayne Casey after the 2017-18 NBA season was a mere ploy in keeping Nurse away from other NBA teams pursuing him.

A franchise that was done in by Carter’s missed shot against the Sixers in Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals, as well as a franchise that couldn’t get over the hump against the LeBron-led Cavaliers 2016 through 2018 has become a team that is yet another one in winning it all one season after coming up short. And they did so, by dethroning an NBA team that was in search of a three-peat. 

The 2018-19 Toronto Raptors like many other teams’ championship seasons is yet another storybook one and is definitely one of the most enjoyable championships runs that I’ve ever seen as a sports fan. And just like the Chiefs fanbase that I’m a part of, as well as the Nationals fanbase, the 2019 NBA championship is a well-deserved one for the Toronto Raptors and their fanbase.