Raptors clinch first NBA championship in team’s 24-year franchise history
OAKLAND, Calif. — The Toronto Raptors’ blockbuster trade for Kawhi Leonard last summer was barely a day old when the forward reached out to his new teammate Kyle Lowry.
“I said ‘Let’s go out and do something special. I know your best friend (DeMar DeRozan) left. I know you’re mad. But let’s make this thing work out,” Leonard told Lowry in a text message.
“And we are here today.”
Here they are indeed. NBA champions for the first time in the team’s history, a brilliant basketball story 24 years in the making reaching its climax Thursday night with a series-clinching win over the Golden State Warriors.
“It just showed the type of person he is,” Lowry said of Leonard’s gesture. “Willing to reach out, understanding that this situation was a little bit sensitive. But he knew that he felt something could be done special with our group.”
Lowry, who’d said from Day 1 of training camp his goal was a “gold ball,” poured in 26 points, doled out 10 assists and grabbed seven rebounds to lift the Raptors to a thrilling 114-110 victory over the two-time defending champion Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
Raptors in six. Or 6ix. A storybook ending.
“Basketball has come full circle in Canada, invented by a Canadian, the first NBA game was in Toronto and now an NBA championship,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said before presenting the Larry O’Brien Trophy to the Raptors.
“Toronto, Canada, we brought it home baby!” Lowry said at the trophy presentation, his two young sons Karter and Kameron pressed up against his legs.
There were reports the victory parade will be held Monday, allowing the city to celebrate. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the owner of the Raptors, is scheduled to make an official announcement on Friday.
Lowry caught Stephen Curry’s full-court heave at the buzzer and held the ball tight to his chest before wrapping Leonard, whose arms were pointing toward the rafters, in a huge hug. Cue the delirious celebration.
“I’ll make sure that we’ll put that (basketball) in the practice gym or somewhere and have it done up to say ‘2019 NBA champions.’ That one will be displayed somewhere in Toronto,” Lowry said.
Pascal Siakam added 26 points, while Fred VanVleet had 12 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter. Leonard finished with 22, and Serge Ibaka chipped in with 15.
Leonard was named Finals MVP for the second time in his career. He was acquired in a blockbuster deal that sent former Raptors star DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs last summer. Leonard played just nine games last year because of a serious quadriceps injury.
“Last year a lot of people were doubting me,” said Leonard, drenched in champagne and pair of ski goggles still atop his head from the post-game locker-room celebrations. “They thought I was either faking an injury or didn’t want to play for a team. That was disappointing . . . because I love the game of basketball.
“I just knew I had to make myself happy and no-one else. And I have to trust myself. That was my goal and my focus.”
Leonard becomes a free agent this summer, and hasn’t given any hints if he’ll re-sign with Toronto.
“I’m going to enjoy this with my teammates and coaches and I’ll think about that later,” Leonard said.
He’ll go down as a hero in Toronto either way.
Hundreds of Canadian fans at Oracle sang “O Canada” as the Raptors took pictures with the trophy.
New Balance, which has put out several cheeky ads featuring the soft-spoken Leonard, delivered another one after the game, saying “Rings speak louder than words.”
“We all know where my (preferred) destinations were (last summer),” Leonard said. “But obviously like I said, when I was there on my opening-day meeting that I was focused on the now, and I wanted to make history here and that’s all I did. I’m still playing basketball no matter what jersey I have on.
“And the guys here have been making runs in the playoffs before I came, so I know they were a talented team. And I just came in with the right mindset, let’s go out and win ball games.”
It was the first championship in one of the big four North American sports leagues (NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL) for a Canadian team since the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993.
Klay Thompson had 30 points for the Warriors before leaving the game late in the third quarter with what would later be diagnosed as a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Andre Iguodala added 22, while Curry finished with 21 the Warriors, who’d won three of the previous four NBA titles.
In what will go down as one of the most exciting games in recent Finals history, Lowry — playing with the sprained left thumb he suffered in Game 7 of the conference semis 12 games earlier — got the Raptors going, staking his team to an early nine-point lead as the teams played breakneck basketball. Three days after connecting on just eight three-pointers in Game 5, the Raptors had nine from deep by the end of the first half Thursday.
Both Lowry and Leonard ran into foul trouble in the third quarter, picking up their fourth fouls. A three-pointer by Iguodala with a minute left in the third put the Warriors up by five — their biggest lead to that point — and ignited the rowdy crowd. Golden State led 88-86 with one quarter to play.
VanVleet had three big three-pointers in the fourth quarter: his first tied the game, his second gave Toronto a one-point lead with 7:08 to play, and his third put Toronto up 104-101 with 3:44 to play. Toronto would not relinquish that lead.
VanVleet, looking battered with a bandage under the eye he cut a couple of games earlier, clenched his fists and let out a jubilant yell after the final one.
“It’s not the glam stars,” VanVleet said of his team, which doesn’t include one draft-lottery pick. “None of our guys other than Kawhi are in that big-boy club, or the fan boy club of the NBA. We got guys who had to get it the long way, who had to get it out of the mud, who had to get it against the grain.”
A Lowry basket made it a six-point Raptors lead with 2:14 to play. But a three-pointer by Draymond Green sparked a Warriors run capped by a DeMarcus Cousins layup that slashed Toronto’s lead to a point with 38 seconds left.
On Toronto’s second-last possession, Leonard was swarmed by Warriors as he finally got a pass off to Danny Green. But Siakam fumbled Green’s pass and it went out of bounds, giving the ball back to Golden State with 9.6 seconds to play. Curry’s three-pointer bounced off the rim, then the Raptors regained control with 0.9 seconds left after a mad scramble.
Leonard scored on a technical awarded because the Warriors called a timeout when they didn’t have one to take. He connected for two more to clinch Toronto the victory.
After 82 regular-season games, and 24 post-season battles, all leading to this moment, finally the Raptors could celebrate.
The Raptors had been methodically working since president Masai Ujiri, dreaming of an NBA title, acquired Leonard last summer, and then added Marc Gasol at February’s trade deadline. Leonard has been their emotional gauge, his teammates assuming his mantra of living in the moment. Never too high, never too low.
“This is a strong-minded tough-ass group of guys,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse, almost a year to the day he was promoted to head coach after the firing of Dwane Casey.
The Raptors’ post-season run had seen Toronto trail Orlando 1-0, Philadelphia 2-1, and Milwaukee 2-0. But the level-headed Raptors never allowed doubt to creep in.
They’d missed an opportunity to close out the Finals at home on Monday, losing to the Warriors 106-105 on a night marred by Kevin Durant’s torn Achilles tendon. The Warriors vowed to win for Durant, and when highlights of the 10-time all-star were played on the Jumbotron, the arena erupted in chants of “K-D!”
The Raptors’ historic run to the Finals gave the NBA something new, a fan base that extended beyond the boundaries of just one city, but stretched across an entire country. There’s been a groundswell of support from the Maritimes to Vancouver Island. Hundreds of Raptors fans were at Oracle Arena for all three games, turning the storied building into their own O-Town version of Jurassic Park.
Back home, thousands of fans gathered at Jurassic Park outside Scotiabank Arena cheered on the Raptors under dark skies and drizzling rain, ponchos pulled up over dripping hair. There were viewing parties across Canada, including Montreal, which was dubbed “Jurassic Peel,” and at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, normally home to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The pockets of Raptors fans in Oracle Arena could be heard singing along with Canadian singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan to “O Canada.” Train’s lead singer Pat Monahan performed the U.S. anthem.
Win or lose, it was bound to be an emotional night for the Warriors, who say goodbye to Oracle Arena, their home since 1967 and a storied building that has seen plenty of glorious victories, before moving across the bay to sparking new Chase Center in San Francisco next season.
“This is sort of a once in a career moment where you play in a building for the very last time,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “Win or lose, we’ll be able to share some emotion and say our goodbyes. But it is a strange, unique night.”
The capacity crowd of 19,596 that included baseball’s Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, retired L.A. Lakers star Metta World Peace, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson marked the 343rd consecutive — and final — Warriors sellout at Oracle.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press