A lot goes into winning a championship.
First and foremost, you need the right players and some superstar talent. Obviously the Cleveland Cavaliers don’t win without LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and the Los Angeles Lakers don’t win without Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. This goes without saying (even though I just said it).
You need a good supporting cast because rarely can one superstar lift an entire team to a title (although James has come close). You need a good coach — one who doesn’t panic when shit hits the fan and who can adjust on the fly. And you need the perseverance and resiliency to make it through the highs and lows of an 82-game season and four rounds of playoffs.
But what often gets overlooked are the sacrifices that certain players make in order for their team to win. Players who push aside their egos or the need to be in the spotlight and fully buy into the team system. Without these types of players, there would be no banner. No eight-hour parade.
After the Big 3 Miami Heat misfired in 2011, dropping the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, Dwayne Wade realized, in order for his team to win, he had to let James take the lead. Wade did this despite the fact that Miami was his team and he’d already won a title as its lead star. Chris Bosh had to make an even bigger sacrifice, going from perennial All-Star and the face of the Toronto Raptors franchise to being the third cog in the Heat machine. A very important role, but not one he was used to. The result? Back to back championships.
Similarly, the Cavaliers do not go on their insane four-year Finals run and win the 2016 title without Kevin Love taking a backseat to James and Irving. This after being the man for the Minnesota Timberwolves for six seasons, putting up monster offensive stats while making three all-star appearances. He went from budding superstar to high-level role player without so much as a peep.
This leads me to the Toronto Raptors, winners of the 2019 NBA Championships. The landmark event that happened just over one year ago.
So what exactly went into We The North becoming We The Champs?
Of course, an otherworldly talent like Kawhi Leonard and a tremendous supporting cast filled with playoff experience and highly-skilled players had a ton to do with it. But this title doesn’t happen without some key players make some key sacrifices, including Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Danny Green.
These unselfish, egoless, team-first players are the exact types of pros that Raptors President Masai Ujiri and his staff like to target. It also helped to have a head coach like Nick Nurse in place who clearly received (and continues to receive) total trust and buy-in from his players.
Let’s take a look at the three players who made the biggest sacrifices in order for the Toronto Raptors to hoist the Larry O’Brien for the very first time in franchise history.
From his super court vison to his sneaky rebounding to taking timely charges, there is a lot to Lowry’s game that goes unnoticed. It’s part of what makes him such an effective player and the greatest Raptor of all time.
But there’s another part of his game that often gets overlooked. His willingness to transform his game for the good of the team — something he’s done three times over the last three seasons.
For the 2017-18 season, the Raptors changed up their offense, deciding to run the ball through DeMar DeRozan more. Instead of sulking, Lowry unselfishly adapted his game accordingly and, in doing so, his offensive output dropped from 22.4 PPG on 15.3 FGA in 2016-17 to 16.2 PPG on 12.1 FGA. That’s a huge drop from one season to the next. But he continued to help the team win.
Then after acquiring Leonard a season later, despite Lowry being the franchise’s 1A or 1B for so many years, he made the conscious decision to forgo his offensive stats to focus on being a facilitator. Like Wade, he let Leonard be the guy, as well as helping the emerging Pascal Siakam to develop into an offensive weapon.
As a result, Lowry’s regular season scoring dropped another two points to 14.2 on 11.4 FGA. His playoffs PPG did the same, going from 17.4 in 2017-18 to 15.0 during the 2018-19 championship run. For those players with a me-first mentality, this would’ve been a difficult pill to swallow. But for Lowry it was easy. He didn’t complain. He just did his job. Because all he cares about is winning.
Like former MVP Steve Nash, Lowry is happy to facilitate and see others succeed. In fact, he takes pride in it and embraces this role.
Remember Leonard’s monstrous dunk on Giannis in the East Finals-clinching Game 6 vs. the Milwaukee Bucks? Of course you do. It will be seared in the minds of Raptors fans for eternity. But watch it again. Lowry has a clear path to the rim. Even with Giannis, the human Gumby, closing in behind him, no one would’ve batted an eye if he went in for a layup. Instead he slows down, dishes it off to the trailing Leonard, subtly clears Giannis to move him out of position and allows Leonard to posterize the crap out of the Greek Freak and take most of the glory.
That being said, Lowry can also go scorched earth on offense when he wants to. He has an innate ability to know exactly when his team needs him to turn it on. And turn it on he did.
This was never more evident than in the championship-clinching Game 6 at Oracle Arena when Lowry began the game by raining hellfire on the Golden State Warriors, scoring the Raptors’ first 11 points. He finished the most important game in franchise history with 26 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, permanently shedding his unwarranted playoff choker status.
Raptors writer Vivek Jacob recently tweeted that the only other players with 25+ points and 10+ assists in Game 6 or 7 of the NBA Finals are Jerry West, Walt Frazier, Larry Bird, James Worthy, and LeBron James.
Further to this point, for the 2019-20 season, with Leonard taking his talents to L.A. and DeRozan long gone, Lowry turned his offensive switch back on. His PPG spiked from 14.2 in 2018-19 to 19.7 because that’s what the team needed from him.
But Lowry didn’t just sacrifice his offense. He also sacrificed his body, which all Raptors fans know is par for the course for the hard-nosed bulldog from North Philly. How many times during the playoffs did we see him get bodied in the post by guys three times his size. Or dive for loose balls, including going head first into the stands in the Finals, much to the dismay of a certain Warriors minority owner with a major issue. Or take a key charge late in a game, like the one he took on the 7-1, 250-pound freight train, Joel Embiid, in Game 7 of the semifinals.
This is all part of Lowry’s tremendous leadership qualities. If a 15-year vet and six-time all-star is willing to be unselfish and adjust his game for the good of the team, then there’s no excuse for his teammates not to follow suit.
Lowry embraced his role with little fanfare, but a ton of enthusiasm. And now he has a giant, glistening ring on his middle finger to show for it.
There are players in this league who need to hear their name called before the game. It’s seemingly more important to them than winning. Carmelo Anthony comes to mind here. Once a dominant offensive player during his prime, his game has since deteriorated. Yet he has refused on multiple occasions to take a bench role.
Then there’s the rare starting-caliber player who unselfishly takes up a sixth man role to help his team win. Former San Antonio Spur Manu Ginóbili is one of these players.
So, too, is Serge Ibaka.
Now, from an offensive standpoint, Ibaka isn’t anywhere close to someone like Anthony — a former scoring champ and 10-time All-Star. But you could argue that Ibaka has contributed more to winning because of his willingness to be a team player.
Prior to the 2019 playoffs, the 11-year vet was a starter for the vast majority of his career. And during the 2018-19 season with the Raptors, he started the majority of games at centre, occasionally conceding his spot to Jonas Valančiūnas when the matchup dictated it. But after JV got hurt early in the season, he became the full full-time centre.
That all changed when the Raptors acquired Marc Gasol at the trade deadline. Nurse decided to split the starting duties between the two bigs, again largely based on matchups. However, once the playoffs began, Nurse installed Gasol in the starting lineup, permanently relegating Ibaka to bench duties.
Matchup-wise, Gasol was just a better fit, which he proved time and time again, shutting down all-star Nikola Vučević during the Orlando Magic series and then using his bulk and smarts to slow down Embiid during the 76ers series. In fact, as many dismayed Raptors fans on Twitter can attest, Embiid took full advantage whenever Ibaka was covering him, powering his way by Ibaka or getting him to bite on pump fakes. Gasol was simply the guy for the job and needed to start.
Can you imagine how this conversation went? “So, Serge. You know that starting role you’ve had your entire NBA career and almost your entire time as a Raptor? Yeah, that’s not happening any more. This new guy’s going to take your spot. Cool beans?”
But Ibaka didn’t sulk or hang his head. Instead he accepted his role and stayed ready for when it was his time to shine. He contributed off the bench throughout the playoffs, not just with his offense, but also his defense and rim protection.
This was apparent in the NBA Finals during the Raptors first trip to Oracle. In Game 3, Serge Ibaka went full Serge Iblocka, racking up six rejections on route to a 123-109 victory. He then followed this up by scoring a much needed 20 points in just 22 minutes in a Game 4 victory, thus sweeping the two road games and going up 3-1 in the series.
But perhaps his biggest contribution off the bench was during the 76ers series. Nurse’s go-to two-point guard lineup of Lowry and Fred VanVleet just wasn’t cutting it against the 76ers’ super big rotation. So Nurse countered with his own big lineup, pairing Ibaka and Gasol for long stretches of the series. This meant that, in addition to his new bench role, he had to adapt quickly to playing alongside Gasol, a pairing that Nurse used for a grand total of 31 minutes during the regular season. As it turns out, the Ibaka-Gasol tandem helped turn around the series after being down 2-1.
And then there was Ibaka’s masterful 17 point, 8 rebound performance in the pivotal Game 7 vs. the 76ers. They simply do not win this game without Ibaka (and, of course, a certain historic four-bounce shot). This game was a total slog for both teams. Other than Leonard, no Raptor was contributing on the offensive end. But then here comes Ibaka who caught fire from beyond the arc, shooting 3-of-5, including drilling a huge three late in the game right in Ben Simmons’ eye.
Finally, during the Larry O’Brien trophy presentation, Ibaka went out of his way to make sure that Lowry was the first to lift it up because he knew the significance of the moment and Lowry’s history with the franchise, city and country. What an unselfish mindset to have during the biggest moment of his own NBA career.
There aren’t many established vets who are willing to come off the bench and do whatever the team asks of him. Another player might’ve felt insulted. But Ibaka pushed his ego aside and realized he could be just as valuable to the team as a sixth man.
The Raptors had a very big problem in the Finals.
Even though they were able to split the first two games of the series, they were getting roasted by the Warriors in the third quarter. And losing this quarter was negating their strong first halves. This issue culminated in Game 2. After the Raptors were up by five points heading into the half, the Warriors began the third quarter with an unprecedented 18-0 tear, effectively costing the Raptors the game.
This offensive barrage was mostly due to the sharp shooting and foul-baiting of Steph Curry. Although Danny Green is an above average defender, like 99 percent of the NBA, he was having difficulty sticking with Curry through a multitude of screens. Added to this was the fact that Danny “Money” Green wasn’t so money during the playoffs. After finishing second in the NBA with a masterful 45.5 three-point percentage, he was ice cold for the majority of the playoffs.
Lowry also took some possessions on Curry, but any extended time on the elusive marksman, which involved chasing him around while bashing through screens, would wear Lowry out. And he was needed to run the offense.
So Nurse had a decision to make. In a surprising move, he started VanVleet instead of Green in the second half of Game 3 and tasked him with covering Curry. And it worked like a charm. The Raptors didn’t lose another third quarter until, oddly enough, Game 6.
As it turns out, VanVleet was the perfect player to chase Curry around the court. Curry is used to being guarded by taller defenders who try to weave through screens. But because of VanVleet’s size, quickness, agility, strength and smarts, he could slip, cut and fight through multiple screens like no one else on the team. Thus he was able to negate the Kevon Looney, Andrew Bogut and DeMarcus Cousins screens, many of which were illegal in nature. (If I had a dime for every time they stuck their asses out…)
VanVleet didn’t stop Curry. No one can. But he was able to stay glued to him enough to bother him and contest his shots. It also helped that VanVleet was killing it form three ever since the middle of the Bucks series, drilling jaw-dropping dagger after jaw-dropping dagger from beyond the arc. Luckily for the Raptors and their fans, his stroke spilled over into the Finals. Toronto doesn’t pop the champagne without VanVleet’s blazing shooting and coverage on Curry, so much so that he garnered a Finals MVP vote.
Up until Game 3 of the Finals, Green started the first and third quarters for every game and was a key rotation piece. Now, for the most important games of the year, the 10+ year vet and NBA champion was asked to give up is second half starting spot and a chunk of playing time to a third-year backup point guard.
But like the true pro he is, Green stepped aside for VanVleet and accepted his role, sacrificing playing time for the good of the team.
This wasn’t anything new for Green. He’d been here many times before with the Spurs and already had a ring to show for it. He knew what it took to win it all — everyone pulling in the same direction. He was also used to playing in an egalitarian style system under Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, where no one player sits above the rest. Even if that player is Tim Duncan. If you don’t check your ego at the door when you play under Popovich, you won’t be playing under him for very long.
Again, these are the types of players that Ujiri and his staff seek out — egoless, unselfish and willing do whatever it takes to win a championship. And win a championship they did.