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Four lucky breaks that led the Raptors to the 2019 NBA title

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Last year at this time, the Raptors were not in the mix for the 2019 NBA title. And yet, on this day, they are champions. How did we get here?

NBA: Finals-Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There were obvious non-Raptors reasons for why many people across the continent were cheering for the Raptors. While sports dynasties can be fun in their way, there’s nothing quite like seeing them brought down. It’s no surprise then to see the rooting interest shift to the Raptors in their bid to topple the Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals. Golden State had been on top (or close to it) for five years, and any team that managed to come along and beat them deserved some love for that. Even if it was that one forgotten team from Canada. Even if it was our team.

But there were other reasons to cheer the Raptors too. How Toronto managed to make it all the way here is part of that story. When taken in summation, when considered across all the years of toil, all the ups and downs, it’s difficult not to smile at their success. (Even Warriors fans can admit that, right?)

At this time last year, the Raptors were not in the championship discussion. They had been destroyed in the playoffs once again, they had no obvious way forward to improve, they had their new head coach but were still staring at another grind of a season with no real light at the end of the tunnel. And yet here we are: the Raptors are the 2019 NBA champions.

How did they do that?

The Kawhi Leonard Trade

Obviously the biggest reason for the Raptors’ turnaround is the presence of Kawhi Leonard. You know all about the details of the trade, and it’s been written about a million different ways — but it’s still crazy to contemplate.

The Raptors had to gamble on a player who had been almost entirely out of the spotlight for a season. They had to trade away the face of their franchise to consummate that bet. And they had to hope it would all work out somehow. Facing down another tough season, the Raptors had nothing to lose in trying to integrate and woo Kawhi, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a difficult call to make. Now in retrospect, it’s possible to say we may have underrated Leonard’s transformative abilities.

Owing to Leonard’s injury situation, one that saw him sit out all but nine games of the 2017-18 season, he was suddenly — and mysteriously — disgruntled with the San Antonio Spurs, then thought to be the most fitting team for Kawhi. The two entities, team and player, were seen as a perfect match for each of the first six years of his career. Leonard even had the Warriors on the ropes in 2017 (with Kevin Durant on the floor). It felt like destiny that Kawhi and the Spurs would be the ones to bring down Golden State. Until it wasn’t.

How Raptors team president Masai Ujiri was able to get in on the deal will remain part of Toronto lore well after all the parties involved have moved on or retired. That story is well known now too — the early morning (late night?) calls from Kenya with Barack Obama nearby, the use of every ounce of available leverage to hang onto both Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. It was the zero hour for the Raptors, and in that moment Ujiri did his job to the utmost. Even before knowing how the rest of the season would play out, he had to believe it could work.

LeBron Heads West

Having won the title, I think we can admit now it would have been interesting to see how these Raptors would have stacked up against a LeBron James-led team. Obviously if LeBron had stayed in Cleveland, they’d be a very different squad — without Kyrie Irving — and who knows if he could have led whatever version of the Lakers he was working to shape all the way to the Finals. Still, it would have been a fun element to add to Toronto’s narrative if they’d managed to slay the King. And having a player like Kawhi on the roster goes a long way towards pumping up the belief the Raptors could have gotten it done.

That said, that the Raptors didn’t have to go through James is also something of a boon. With him out of the East, the path to the Finals suddenly felt far more open. It emboldened other teams too — namely the Sixers and Bucks — but the Raptors were clearly the team most psychologically affected. Even if they hadn’t traded for Kawhi, there would have no doubt been some optimism that the Raptors could finally make it all the way there if only because LeBron was now out of the way.

The East is Not Ready

Speaking of those East teams, it helped the Raptors out that they all had some sort of fatal flaw that undid them along the way. The playoffs have a way of finding those cracks in every team and having them turn into the thing that breaks them. Toronto fans have come to know this feeling quite well over the years.

Toronto never had to face the Celtics but it was clear by the second round that Irving and his squad of youngsters — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, et. al. — were not ready to come together in common purpose. They had too many people who needed the ball in their hands, too many guys who wanted to be the Guy. By the end of their series against the Bucks, Irving looked like he wanted to walk off the edge of the earth, and his supporting cast was looking like they wanted to help push him there. I don’t have any more pithy comments to make here, it’s just what happened.

Meanwhile, the Bucks, presumptive favourites in the conference, finally met their match in Toronto. It’s hard not to feel a bit bad at how things shook out for Milwaukee. They followed the championship textbook as closely as possible — MVP candidate, strong versatile group of do-it-all players, a strong offensive and defensive identity, shooting and play-making up and down the lineup. There was no reason they couldn’t have won it all. Except Kawhi eventually solved Giannis Antetokounmpo, and for all the Bucks’ firepower, they couldn’t get enough good shots off to counter what the Raptors were doing.

In this review, it’s actually the Philadelphia 76ers who stand out the most now. They had the size, and, for the most part, the shooting, to really put a scare into Toronto. Philly fans are rightly wondering what would have happened had Joel Embiid been fully healthy. If we’re being honest, the lowest moment of this post-season was definitely the day before Game 4, after the Raptors had been drubbed in the previous contest, and we learned that Pascal Siakam was questionable to play. That the Raptors managed to grind out that win, and then two more, is remarkable. That we’ll have The Shot to cherish for the rest of our lives is an added bonus.

Walking Wounded Warriors

Here’s where things get a little complicated. As optimistic as it was to feel about the Raptors heading into the NBA Finals — they were a feel-good underdog story so it was hard not to — they were facing the two-time NBA champion Golden State Warriors. If Toronto had to take on a healthy Warriors team, one with a peak Kevin Durant, and without games missed by Kevon Looney and Klay Thompson (especially late in Game 6), it is difficult to envision them winning the title. I hate to write that sentence, but it still feels true.

To be clear, I’m not putting an asterisk on anything here. Part of the challenge of winning an NBA title — to saying nothing of three in four years — is staying healthy. There is an unbelievable strain put on these athletes when you consider all the high-intensity games they have to play just to compete for a chance at the ring. The Warriors went through five runs to the Finals — literally a full sixth season in five years — and eventually the wear-and-tear started to show. By the end of Game 6, they were playing with a limited Andre Iguodala, DeMarcus Cousins, and Looney. They had no Thompson, and no Durant. They were leaning entirely on an exhausted Steph Curry. And they still had a chance to win in Game 6. We can do nothing now by tip our caps to them. The Warriors are dead, but also: long live the Warriors.

*******

So there we are. On June 15th, 2018, the Raptors were the same team that had been crushed in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, minus the head coach, Dwane Casey, who had to led them out of the darkness of a 22-60 regular season. Even as the players have changed, the city has borne all of that futility and pain on the way to this exact moment. Toronto needed a lot of things to go right, they needed the timing to be perfect, they needed all the luck to break their way.

And in the end, it did. Forever and ever, after everything else has fallen away, the basketball history books will say it right there in black-and-while: the Toronto Raptors are the 2019 NBA champions.