The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions. This isn’t another one of my erratic preseason predictions. This is now a matter of fact. It’s literally a childhood dream coming true. Hyperbole is now a reality. I never imagined this was possible.
The first time I entertained the thought of a championship was on the Raptors’ last offensive possession of the third quarter in Game 4 of the Finals. The Raptors were up 77-67 with 17 seconds left in the third. On the previous offensive possession, Kawhi had been trapped at the top of the key by Draymond Green and Klay Thompson which forced him to pass out to Norman Powell to his left. Powell missed a floater. End of possession.
On the next possession, anticipating a trap, Kawhi positioned himself on the right block. Fred VanVleet ran a pick-and-roll with Serge Ibaka. VanVleet dragged Livingston and Green with him to the basket before dropping a pass to the cutting Kawhi for an easy 7-foot baseline jumper to put the Raptors up 79-67 after three quarters. If Kawhi was going to get easy off-ball buckets off simple cuts then the Warriors were in trouble.
That’s the first time I thought: “oh, we’re just gonna line up our guys, make plays, and beat this team.” But it was much harder than that over the next two games.
Still, with or without Kevin Durant, I was sure we were going to win Game 5. So sure that I began drafting this message at 5:30 a.m. on the day of the game because I couldn’t sleep. I was excited about the championship prospects of the day. With the Raptors up six with three minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 5, I began assembling multiple screens around me so I could enjoy the post-game press conference, celebration, and debauchery. Heck, if I was going to miss the after-party. I was determined to see every champagne bottle pop. Then, everything abruptly collapsed at the end of Game 5. It happened so fast. I anticipated a party but was left with the darkest funeral of this magical playoff run.
Luckily the Raptors have a leader who is unresponsive to external stimuli and pressures. Unfazed by failure, Kawhi and company finished the job in Game 6 in a possession-by-possession slugfest. It was fitting that Kyle Lowry was dominant last night in a contest that was handcrafted in the image of his game. He deserved to have the final imprint on this championship run.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Prior to this season, being a Raptors’ fan required an unwavering belief in the sum being greater than the parts. The idea was simple. Acquire and develop a team of nice players and build a culture of improvement every year. This strategy was developed out of necessity as past franchise superstars — Damon Stoudamire, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Chris Bosh — left during the primes of their careers. Superstar neglect became a franchise ideology.
So the Raptors bought low on Lowry in 2012, drafted and traded exceptionally well, and banked on DeMar DeRozan’s incremental improvement every year. This low-key-stay-the-course strategy resulted in the greatest era of Raptors’ basketball over the past five years. The team was successful by every definition of the word except one — winning a championship.
That leads us to Kawhi.
As we’ve seen this year (and almost every year before that), it takes miracle-makers to win a championship. Kawhi made miracles on the court this year. He overpowered a collection of max players on the Sixers, stopped the unstoppable Giannis, and ultimately ended what was left of the Warriors dynasty. Kawhi’s divinity was a necessity in the playoffs. Without him, a championship remains a distant dream.
This championship is also a commentary on incremental improvement. DeRozan improved every year so he became valuable enough to be included in a trade for Kawhi.
The team’s commitment to playing young players provided Memphis a sample to evaluate Delon Wright as a prospect. Wright was only available because VanVleet signed as an undrafted free agent and developed into a irreplaceable rotation player.
The Raptors used Kawhi-less regular season games to get Pascal Siakam reps as the primary ball-handler and scorer which ultimately led to him being confident enough to challenge Giannis and Green on both sides of the floor in the last two series. The chain reaction of incremental improvement is its own miracle.
Despite Kawhi’s heroics, it still wasn’t easy.
The Raptors were blown out three times this postseason — Games 3 and 6 versus the Sixers and Game 2 versus the Bucks. Each time, they came back and won the next game.
Down 2-1 to the Sixers, Game 4 was tied 84-84 with 6:20 left in the fourth quarter. The Raptors needed all of Kawhi’s 39 points (13-20 FG, 5-7 from three, in 43 minutes) to clinch the game and tie the series. Of course, we all know about Kawhi’s shot in Game 7 versus the Sixers.
Down 2-0 to the Bucks, Lowry fouled out with 6:12 left in fourth quarter of Game 3. Siakam missed two free throws near the end of regulation that would’ve clinched the game. The Raptors remarkably won in double overtime.
Tied 2-2 in the conference finals, the Bucks jumped out to an 18-4 lead midway through the first quarter. The Raptors battled back on the road to win.
The Bucks led Game 6 by 15, 76-61, with 2:18 left in the third quarter. Raps came back and won that one too.
Most recently, there was Game 5 of the finals in Toronto which was somehow lost. I comprehend the sequence of events that led to a Warriors win but fail to re-create the irrational circumstances that led to the loss. It was a bizarre game.
These challenges seem minute after the Raptors overcame them. But, in the moment, the season appeared to be on the brink of collapse multiple times. Overcoming fatality with mortal effort, resolve, and steadfastness makes this championship that much more special.
A NOTE ON FANDOM
I was 11 years old when the Raptors came into existence in Toronto. Any basketball memories I have before 1995 are a result of retrofitting grainy YouTube clips into my childhood memories. The Raptors were my introduction to basketball and are my sports vitality. There’s no point revisiting my childhood (Tracy Murray/Oliver Miller), angsty teenage years (Vinsanity), uncertain college years (Bosh), blind hippie optimism after college (Andrea Bargnani) and the calculated corporate years (Lowry/DeRozan) described above.
It’s easy now to look back on the wins and losses in the last 24 years as a necessary pathway to reach this point. But the cliche “it was all worth it to get to this point” does not apply here. Victory and defeat are independent outcomes with unique emotional baggage. Winning this year does not make the lingering anxiety of last year’s Game 1 loss to the Cavaliers acceptable. Paul Pierce’s block on Lowry at the buzzer of Game 7 at home in 2014 still stings. That was that and this is this.
The difference now is that past disappointment is complemented with joy. The scale burdened by nightmares is now balanced with dreams. The joy today is abundant and overwhelming. It’s a sense of accomplishment and the collective feeling of “we did it.” The impossible is always possible when chance, hard work, and miracle-makers align.
As a diehard fan, there’s also an element of finality to it. After a quarter of a century, the chase is over. I’ve spent over 70 percent of my living days on earth dreaming about this championship. I’ve dedicated more time configuring Raptors’ lineups in my mind than I have contemplating the existence of a just God. My work as a powerless fan is now over. I no longer feel the need to follow the frenzy of free agency and off-season transactions. You can’t rebuild what is already complete. There are no more solutions to a problem that has already been solved. There’s nothing more left to do. The job is done and it will never be as good as it is right now, in this moment, standing alone as champions of the world.
So, where do we go from here?
Personally, I buy the championship hat and rest my fandom, for awhile at least. For the Raptors, maybe they will finally play on Christmas Day next season. That’s all that’s left to accomplish now.