There’s no more wondering what might have been.
No more talking about missed shots or missed opportunities. No more heartbreak.
Not this time. Not this team.
The Toronto Raptors are on top of the basketball world, 24 years in the making. For the first time in the team’s history, the Toronto Raptors are NBA champions.
Led by the King of the North, Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors 114-110 and silenced the hostile Oracle Arena crowd to take the basketball crown away from the back-to-back defending champions.
It was Toronto’s 106th playoff game in team history. It was Toronto’s 106th game of the season. They won the Finals in six games. Now the Larry O’Brien championship trophy is heading to “The 6ix”.
Leonard became just the third player in NBA history to be named Finals MVP with two different teams – joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lebron James.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri risked it all for this moment. He fired the NBA coach of the year, Dwane Casey, after another playoff failure a year ago. He traded away the franchise’s most popular player, DeMar DeRozan, for Leonard. He certainly wasn’t popular with the fans a year ago at this time.
In fact, it was one year and a day ago Nick Nurse, an assistant on Casey’s staff, was promoted to head coach, and he rewarded Ujiri by guiding the Raptors to an NBA title in his first season at the helm.
Winning has a way of making people forget and forgive. Ujiri has never been more popular.
But long before the brilliant championship moment Thursday night at Oracle Arena when the bright lights of the basketball world shone down on the Toronto Raptors, there was darkness.
The path to this title for this cast of characters on the Raptors roster has been paved with heartaches and setbacks. Fred VanVleet was five when his father was shot to death. Kawhi Leonard was 16 when his father was killed. Serge Ibaka’s mother died when he was just eight. And Pascal Siakam’s dad was killed in a car crash when Pascal was 20.
And then there’s Lowry, the longest-serving Raptor, who grew up in the rough and tough neighbourhoods of North Philly. He was raised by a single mother and his grandmother, and they did everything they could to make sure he could play basketball.
“Going to work, getting up at five in the morning and going to work and making me cereal, having a bowl of cereal sitting in the refrigerator with some milk and being able to provide for me and my brother and my family. That’s pressure,” Lowry said earlier in the week.
“Just being willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that your kid will see better than what you’ve ever seen.”
All championship teams resonate with fans to some degree because people love a winner. And all championship teams have stories of adversity, stories of triumph against all odds.
But at the heart of this Raptors team is resiliency, a foundation of unshakable poise built up through a lifetime of hard knocks. And perhaps that’s what’s made the nation fall in love with this team in particular.
Despite being elite basketball players and being paid millions of dollars, there’s a relatability with the players because there are many in this country who know what it means to be heartbroken, only to rise above.
That’s why, in the face of doubters and haters and people who said this team could never win, the Raptors rose above.
Through tenacious defence, tireless offence and a competitive spirit to overcome, the Raptors reached the peak and are now on top of the basketball world.
There was a poise, confidence and stoicism to this Raptors team throughout the entire playoff run — many pointed to Leonard’s unflappable ways rubbing off on his teammates.
When the Raptors walked the court after winning Game 4, their second straight at hostile Oracle Arena, the players headed straight to the locker room, emotionless.
It looked as though they had lost the games — no, this was a team that realized they hadn’t accomplished anything until Thursday’s championship-clinching Game 6 victory.
This basketball odyssey started eight months ago on a chilly October night in Toronto when the Raptors defeated their former nemesis, the Cleveland Cavaliers, 116-104 at Scotiabank Arena.
After another successful regular season — one win short of tying last year’s club record of 59 wins — the Raptors prepared for another playoff run they hoped would lead to a championship.
The Raptors trailed in every series leading to the NBA Finals. And the pundits and prognosticators said they weren’t going to going to knock off the league’s best team in the regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks.
After falling behind 2-0 to the Bucks, the resolve of a team that had nothing but an abysmal history of playoff disappointment was tested. The Raptors won the next four games to win the Eastern Conference final for the first time.
And then, for this last act, the Raptors were tested one final time, against arguably the best team in basketball history.
They couldn’t close the Warriors out at home in Game 5 — the blood-pressure of a fan base used to watching it all slip away was rising. But the team didn’t panic.
They knocked off the kings of the court three times at Oracle, including the final game ever at the historic venue.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, said many of the critics.
The Raptors were doubted again. They proved them all wrong again.
They are champions. Finally.