Back to the NBA Journey: Final Destination

The 2018-19 NBA season has ended. The Association believed that its destination would be another championship for the Golden State Warriors. But that didn’t happen, as the Toronto Raptors defeated the Warriors in six games. This is Part One of a two-part piece centered around our true destination. First, we examine the newly-crowned champions.

For most of this decade, the Raptors have been successful, but underachieving franchise. Through drafts and trades, they built quite a team. With DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry as the core, the Raptors had a perennial All-Star with an ever-deepening cast of quality role players. They were constructed to be conference contenders. There was just one problem: LeBron James also played in the East. And like a canonized gatekeeper, staked claim to his place in the NBA Finals, slaughtering every other hopeful Eastern Conference team through his sheer might. Three straight years — including ten consecutive losses — of being eliminated by LeBron left Toronto at a crossroads.

But like a ray of light, LeBron departed Cleveland and headed to Los Angeles. Suddenly, the East’s throne was vacated and there was a real chance Toronto could earn its first trip to the Finals in franchise history. Right before LeBron’s news broke, the team decided to make its first bold move by firing head coach Dwane Casey. After a 59-win season — Toronto’s most successful — GM Masai Ujiri decided that different leadership was needed. He hired Nick Nurse, an assistant under Casey that had been with Toronto since 2013. Nurse was both refreshing and familiar, having already developed a relationship with players on the roster while carrying different ideas of basketball philosophy. It was a bold move, considering the feeling that Casey had figured out how to get the best out of DeRozan and Lowry.

The biggest, boldest and most surprising decision Ujiri and the Raptors decided to make was to split up Lowry and DeRozan. The bond between those two was undeniable, and the two seemed fated to be together to endure whatever basketball had designed for them. But DeRozan (and Jakob Poeltl) were sent to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. Leonard himself was coming off a leg injury and carried questions surrounding his commitment to any team with free agency looming.

After years together and building an incredible friendship, Toronto decided to trade DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. It proved to be the right decision. (Toronto Sun)

It seemed like a compatible match. The Raptors received an amazing player, at least for one season, and Leonard got a fresh start in a place where he could prove his worth as a max player. Few considered the idea of winning the conference, especially as the Milwaukee Bucks were the NBA’s best team all regular season. Toronto was the #2 seed, but had just as much a chance to win the conference as the Bucks, Sixers and Celtics. It would be just as plausible for them to win the conference as it would to lose in the second round to Philadelphia.

The playoffs started with a disappointing home loss to the Orlando Magic. Granted, it took a DJ Augustin deep three to lose, but Toronto had no business losing to that team. After regrouping and winning four straight to eliminate Orlando, it was time to face those Sixers. Seven grueling games, with Philly refusing to go away easily, came down to the final possession of the series.

Then the shot happened.

Kawhi, in the corner near the three-point line, fading to his right for his 39th shot attempt, over 20 feet from the basket, taking a long jumper over the outstretched arm of Joel Embiid. The shot bounced on the rim four times, holding what felt like the fate of Toronto’s basketball future in its caroms. It drops in, and it was if the entire country of Canada exploded in synchronized cheers. No, that shot didn’t even guarantee a trip to the Finals. And most believed Milwaukee would beat Toronto. But that shot, for both Kawhi and the Raptors, validated them as worthy and erased any doubt about toughness and commitment.

It seemed like with this shot, everything Toronto was fated to be in basketball was on the line. (Dan Hamilton/USA Today)

Milwaukee took the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals and it seemed like here is where Toronto’s season would end. The likely MVP, Giannis Antetekounmpo, appeared to be on a mission to further establish himself as the NBA’s new biggest star. But Kawhi and the Raptors refused to roll over. This year was different, and it was because this team was different. Four straight victories and the team earned their first ever Finals berth.

The Golden State Warriors, though injured, were still heavily favored to win their fourth championship in five years. Even if Kawhi was seen as the best overall player in the series, the Warriors had skill and experience advantages everywhere else. Even after the Raptors convincingly took Game 1, the feeling of hope was quickly dashed as the Warriors evened the series going back to Oakland.

Something incredible happened in Oracle Arena. The Raptors continued to prove that they were the better team. Yes, an injury to Warriors guard Klay Thompson shifted the perception of each team. But Toronto had outplayed Golden State in every quarter except one. Conceivably, Toronto was one Warriors run away from sweeping Golden State. But a 3-1 lead after taking both games on the road put the Raptors on the brink of glory.

Kevin Durant decided to return for Game 5. His emotional boost, at the cost of his now ruptured Achilles’ tendon, carried the Warriors to their second win of the series. But it took so much for them to beat Toronto that it was clear whose championship it was to lose. Still, there was some doubt around accepting that Toronto would have the team that won the NBA title.

Game 6 was one of the best basketball games ever played. Quality shot-making, defensive plays and scoring runs are what bring out the beauty of basketball. The Warriors fought with all that heart of a champion that permeates sports cliches.

But Toronto was better.

Kyle Lowry, much maligned for his postseason blunders, had one of his most memorable games. Fred VanVleet, an undrafted guard who signed a contract with Toronto before the season, came up huge in the fourth quarter. Toronto finally knocked out the Warriors and were able to secure an NBA championship.

Kyle Lowry, pictured holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy, can finally call himself a champion. (Ezra Shaw/Betty Images)

No more can we ridicule the Raptors for ineptitude. The franchise did what most of us wish we could and what all of us have had to do at some point: let go of something good in order to receive something better. Congratulations to the city of Toronto, the country of Canada and the whole NBA for a fantastic 2018-19 season. See you next year.

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