Begging had turned to pleading, stress had turned to sweat, and the Raptors looked like they were buckling under the pressure of the moment. Toronto had gone nearly three minutes in the fourth quarter without making a field goal, when Fred VanVleet got the ball up top, went around a screen, and buried a 26-foot three-pointer over DeMarcus Cousins to tie the game at 91.
The shot was a chance to exhale, for both Raptors players and fans, but Fred wasn’t done there.
VanVleet would go on to hit two more impossible, clutch three-point shots in the next four minutes of Game 6’s fourth quarter, then got fouled on another. Those 12 points were massive in a finish that had all the hallmarks of an epic Finals game turning into a rock fight. You’ll think of Cleveland-Golden State Game 7 in 2016, or Bulls-Jazz Game 6 in 1998, or Boston-L.A. in 2010. When you have two teams this good, you just have to grind and see who throws the last punch.
Then, it happened. After the Raptors and Warriors played a torrid first half, with 117 points and 14 lead changes between them; after Klay Thompson went down with a knee injury; after Golden State turned their championship defence up to where it needed to be to start the fourth — it was the Toronto Raptors who made the last statement, with the man whose slogan is “bet on yourself” as the focal point.
With a 114-110 win in Game 6, those Toronto Raptors — who dissolved the flaws of past Raptors teams, who made resiliency their character trait — are NBA champions for the first time.
Toronto’s championship-clinching game was bookended by two players who stand for what this Raptors organization is about. In the first half, it was Kyle Lowry — the player who was nearly traded to the Knicks for a draft pick in 2013, but ended up as the most important player in multiple playoff years, dedicated to winning in Toronto despite being questioned over and over by his critics.
Lowry scored the first 11 points for Toronto, throwing an F-U to anyone who thought he airmailed Game 5’s final shot of his own accord. Three three-pointers went down before Golden State could blink, taking the wind out of Oracle and giving the Raptors the first lead. Those 11 would add up to 21 in the first half and 26 in the game, as Lowry nearly had a triple-double, adding ten assists and seven rebounds.
With Kawhi Leonard earning the assignment of both Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, Lowry was able to do what he’s done all playoffs — assess the situation and make the right reads. The high pick and roll was the bread and butter for Toronto in Game 6, as the Raptors smartly went after Golden State’s centres as often as possible.
This was also how Fred VanVleet got his in the fourth.
VanVleet, an undrafted player who came up through the Raptors 905, might be an unlikely hero to the uninitiated. Since late in the Milwaukee series, though, he’s been a bench hero for Toronto, and was so again in Game 6. Those 12 points in the fourth quarter were part of 22 on the night. In the frantic celebration after the final buzzer, VanVleet’s ABC interview was ransacked by another unlikely star — Pascal Siakam. Though the Cameroon native looked uncomfortable at times in this game, he made a handful of clutch layups in the fourth quarter and a pair of important threes in the first, part of his 26 points and 10 rebounds.
Then, of course, there was no silencing Kawhi Leonard completely. Even with the entire focus of the Warriors’ defence on him, Kawhi got 22 points on 16 shots — another game where he quietly got his production despite double teams and tons of physicality thrown his way. Kawhi’s most important play didn’t show up on the scoreboard either, as he fought two Warriors for a loose ball at halfcourt with three seconds left in the fourth — running clock and, after a lengthy review, securing the win for Toronto.
Those four players for Toronto — Leonard, Siakam, VanVleet, and Lowry — accounted for 96 of the Raptors’ 114 in the game. A superstar brought on thanks to years of careful, yet opportunistic asset management. An unlikely star who worked all summer to make the NBA’s biggest leap in talent. An undrafted point guard. A veteran of 13 years who brought everything together, then and now. It’s admittedly a bit poetic that these were the four that earned the Raptors their first championship in 24 years.
The Warriors, for their part, were an honourable fight. Thompson’s injury in the third quarter ended up being the turning point in the game, as he tweaked his knee after a contested transition dunk and was forced to exit. Klay was working through a typical Game 6 for him at that point, making 8-for-12 overall, 4-for-6 from three, and proving unguardable against a Raptors defence that was selling out completely on him and Steph Curry.
After Thompson left, Toronto could focus even more on the Warriors’ point guard, with some sporadic box-and-one and tight one-on-one defence from VanVleet forcing him into exhaustion and missed shots. The biggest of those was the game’s last meaningful play, as a Curry three with seven seconds left drew back iron — a shot that could’ve sent this series back to Scotiabank Arena.
Thompson would finish the leading scorer for the Warriors, despite only playing three quarters, with 30 points. Curry had 21 on 17 shots. Andre Iguodala, pulling another vintage game out four years after earning his Finals MVP, scored 22 points and made three threes. The Raptors had to prepare for some curve balls, and Iguodala was definitely one.
They made just enough plays, though. It was the final chapter in a playoff run that stood on the edge of a knife so many times. The questions after Game 1 against Orlando. The Kawhi Leonard shots in Game 4 and, of course, Game 7 against Philadelphia. The revival of the role players, after everyone had buried them, against the Bucks. The challenge of winning games at Oracle Arena, in what was supposed to be a coronation for the NBA’s oldest arena, against this decade’s greatest team.
The Raptors beat the odds, beat the dynasty, and did what they have all year — beat the notion of the old Toronto Raptors. Now, the Larry O’Brien trophy is coming to the country where basketball was invented, where the first NBA game was played.
The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions. Now it’s time to celebrate.