While we probably shouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves here, especially considering the fact we’re talking about a Toronto sports team, it is difficult right now to imagine a scenario where the Raptors do not win the NBA championship. Again, let’s not jump ahead. But also, woooooooooooooooooo.
In that spirit, with the Raptors up 3-1 and Game 5 hours away, let’s run through what a Toronto win would mean for various entities on both the Raps and the Warriors, along with other peripheral actors in this drama that is the NBA Finals.
There is a contingent of people who remember Kawhi’s Game 1 performance against the Warriors in the 2017 Western Conference Finals as something of an aberration. He was having a great game for sure, the Spurs were up big, and it was a nice story (until Kawhi got hurt) — but it still felt inevitable for the Warriors to win that series.
What this entry presupposes is: what if it wasn’t? What if Leonard, as he’s ploughed through 22 post-season games in 2019 with the Raptors while averaging 31.1 points (on 50/39/89 percent shooting), 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.6 steals in 39 minutes per game, really is the most dominant force in basketball? What if he alone can change the fortunes of any team? At 27 years old, coming off an entirely lost season in 2017-18, with an NBA championship and Finals MVP already in tow, can it be proven otherwise at this point? If the Raptors win the title tonight, or in the next week, there will be a contingent of people who say Kawhi is the best basketball player alive right now.
I was at a gathering to watch Game 2 vs. the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Some friend of a friend of a friend was at this gathering and decided to start telling me how the Raptors should trade Kyle Lowry, as he is not a top player and has never shown himself to be the leader Toronto has needed. Needless to say, this did not sit well with me.
I’ll keep this entry short: if I see that guy again, I may be forced to throw hands. (And we will undoubtedly have more to say about Lowry in the weeks to come.)
Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green
Basketball is defined by eras. Go back far enough and the patterns emerge. (Yes, even acknowledging the various outliers along the way.) In this decade, the Kobe-era Lakers gave way to the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Heat, which came apart just as the Warriors rose to their present heights. (The Mavericks and Spurs had roles to play in there, but you get my point.)
All of this is to say, when people look back at this decade of basketball, the names they will see most often will undoubtedly include Curry, Thompson, and Green. Win or lose tonight, the first is the most transcendent offensive talent we’ve ever seen, the second is perhaps one of the most astounding shooters of all time, and the third literally redefined what it meant to play basketball in the modern era. Three titles in four years, five trips in a row to the Finals, awards as far as the eye can see. All things must come to an end, but we’ll remember Steph, Klay, and Draymond for a long, long time.
For a guy who has exposed himself to be, uh, not all that interesting, we are certainly living and dying on what will happen next with KD. Heading into the Finals, it was felt the Warriors would have little difficulty beating back the Raptors. Kawhi and Toronto could make it competitive, sure, but when a healthy Durant gets going, it throws a supreme monkey wrench into any team’s defensive strategy.
Which makes the situation now immensely interesting. If Durant comes back (he’s officially a game-time decision as of this writing) and actually makes an impact in this series, what does it say about this current Warriors team? How about the previous two squads? And how about Durant himself? Could KD claim to have swung not just this title, but the previous two? (And this is before we even consider Durant’s free agency decision.)
The Supporting Players
Hard to think of a more loved player who has inspired more fans in more regions of the world than Marc Gasol. He’s a legend in Memphis, a hero in Spain. He’s only been a Raptor for four months, but who has a bad thing to say here about Gasol (besides maybe “shoot more!”)? The narrative of veterans who try and fail in their prime to win a title only to grab one as tertiary players on a different team is well understood by now. Sometimes these moves feel extremely mercenary, and sometimes we’re all just happy to see it happen for a good guy (and player). That’s Gasol.
And if Gasol helps the Raptors win a title tonight, his Hall of Fame legacy moves from solid to unimpeachable. (For the record: even if the Raptors lost, Gasol would still go to the Hall of Fame on his international credits alone. Still, an NBA title win certainly rounds out his career nicely.)
That we’re talking about Danny Green’s legacy at all means we’re already in a special place. Winning the title with Toronto, the second of his career overall, would put him in that rare class of players who don’t merit a huge mention in the history books yet somehow continue to pop up again and again in good situations.
The apex of this player is Robert Horry, if you’re keeping track. Green has a ways to go before he reaches that level, but that’s not bad for a guy who began the decade in the G League.
In one decade, Ibaka has gone from being the league’s future (the stretch four), to its past (can’t play-make? Get out). He’s almost tasted NBA gold, and then been forced to wait for years just to get another real chance. He’s played power forward and centre, been a dominant starter and a useful bench part. He’s gone from being unsung to a media superstar. He continues to be, at this stage of his career, a complete trick-or-treat type player.
If he shows up in Game 5, the Raptors will win. And if Ibaka wins the title, he moves up the list of era-defining players. There’s just no other way to slice it.
Shaun Livington and Andre Iguodala
Setting aside his (controversial) 2015 Finals MVP win, Iguodala is likely set to become another of those all-time “good to have around” guys. Once he found his place in Golden State, it was clear his role as the team’s glue guy would be transformative. And through five playoff runs, that’s exactly what Iguodala has meant for the Warriors.
Livingston falls into that category too, even as it appears he’s running on fumes now. A fair question to ask: has Livingston’s run as a super-sub for the Warriors overshadowed the central narrative of his career (the massive injury comeback)? Right now, taking the extreme long view, I say no — but I could be convinced otherwise.
Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet
Nothing is set in stone for either Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet at this moment. Though looking at the careers of Livington and Iguodala provide a lodestar for both of them.
That said, Siakam could still become one of the premiere players in the league, surpassing all the names mentioned in this entry. Meanwhile, VanVleet appears destined for a long career as a notorious winner (before getting into coaching, management, or anything else he wants). I still can’t get over how done FVV looked in the second round — I was ready to salary dump him! The doubters, the people who didn’t bet on VanVleet (and Siakam), have been proven wildly wrong.
The Off-Court Leadership
Yes, Nick Nurse was gifted with a supremely talented roster, one capable of going the distance even without him at the helm. But now a series of questions: Where did Nurse place in the ranking of coaches at the start of the 2018-19 season? And how about now?
Five titles as a player, three more as a coach. Where would a fourth title put Steve Kerr? He’s not on the list of top ten most winning-est coaches (yet), but it feels like he should be. Still, it already feels like it will be immensely difficult to keep Kerr off the ranking of the top ten coaches of all time. Just a quick list off the top of my head: Auerbach, Riley, Jackson, Popovich, Wilkens, Fitch, Sloan, Brown perhaps. But then?
Eh, you know what, it hasn’t been a great Finals for them. Let’s just move on.
from this roster to the doorstep of an nba championship in 6 years, without bottoming out. the raptors are a goddamn miracle pic.twitter.com/Lq67N0AhRT— Joe Wolfond (@joey_doubleyou) June 6, 2019
Win or lose, everything Masai Ujiri has ever believed... is true.
City of Oakland
I’d like to feel a little sad for the Warriors fans in Oakland. In the true spirit of gentrification, their arena and team are about to be taken away from them and moved to the more “affluent” San Francisco. I won’t pretend to have my finger on the pulse of that situation, but I can just imagine if, say, the Raptors were to move to a boom-town Hamilton (or some such thing). I would be upset.
But then, after Game 4, there’s the footage of Warriors fans streaming for the arena exits. This, despite the fact that it could very well be the last game ever in Oracle Arena. Do they know something we don’t? Or are they just burnt out by five years of long playoff runs? Does a fourth title just not matter as much anymore? Maybe enough is enough for Oakland.
City of Toronto, Province of Ontario, Country of Canada
Let’s stave off our usual Toronto-centric biases here — OK, my usual Toronto-centric biases — and recall that no Canadian team has won a championship in any of the big four leagues (NBA, NHL, MLB, NFL) since 1993.(Sorry, the MLS title for Toronto FC doesn’t quite cut it — yet.) As others have pointed out, this has given Canadian teams, even confident ones, something of a complex. It’s also why we go so crazy for Team Canada in Olympic hockey. It’s all we have!
Well before I started writing this, people were already lining up outside the Scotiabank Arena. There are massive viewing parties planned across the city, in the Greater Toronto Area, and even in places as far flung as Regina, Saskatchewan (and further still, I’m sure). The fan recollections, the good and bad memories, everything that has happened to get us to this point is on basketball fans’ minds from coast to coast in Canada. It really is impossible to overstate how big this feels. The Raptors can bring it all home... tonight.