Second place goes to Kyle Lowry, the Raptors’ all-time franchise player honoring Toronto’s original franchise player, Damon Stoudamire:
Of course, the Raptors had to wait.
The final second of Game 6 of the NBA Finals took nearly seven minutes. This was never going to be easy for Toronto.
But when the game finally ended – 114-110 with the Raptors as NBA champions – it was oh so satisfying.
Toronto was built boldly then played boldly, upsetting the heavily favored Warriors and gaining validation.
Masai Ujiri upended a successful team in pursuit of something better. Don’t let the payoff totally obscure the risk. Disrupting the best era in franchise history for an injured star was always a real gamble.
Kawhi Leonard requested a trade from the Spurs, who are widely viewed as the NBA’s model organization. He couldn’t control where they sent him. He just knew he’d be better off elsewhere. Now, Leonard joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Bucks and Lakers) and LeBron James (Heat and Cavaliers) as the only players to win Finals MVP with multiple teams.
Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol have thrown everything into becoming the best players and teammates they could be. But they still toiled for years – Lowry in Toronto, Gasol in Memphis – trying to get over the hump with team success. Now, Lowry (13th season) and Gasol (11th season) join a short list of multi-time All-Stars who waited so long to win their first title but got it while still starting.*
*Jason Kidd (2011 Mavericks, 17th season), Dirk Nowitzki (2011 Mavericks, 13th season), Shawn Marion (2011 Mavericks, 12th season), Kevin Garnett (2008 Celtics, 13th season), Ray Allen (2008 Celtics, 12th season), Michael Finley (2007 Spurs, 12th season), Glen Rice (2000 Lakers, 11th season), Clyde Drexler (1995 Rockets, 12th season), Jerry West (1972 Lakers, 12th season), Oscar Robertson (1971 Bucks, 11th season)
Pascal Siakam took to basketball just eight years ago, committing to the sport to honor his late father. He rose from Basketball Without Borders in Africa to New Mexico State to an NBA bench role to likely winning Most Improved Player this season. On the biggest stage, he put his stamp on this series.
Serge Ibaka cares about his standing within the league. Don’t get him started on how many times he has been snubbed for a defensive award. But he accepted a reserve role this season and just focused on doing his job well. He still still found multiple times to come up big in the Finals.
As an undrafted free agent, Fred VanVleet chose a team with three point guards – Lowry, Cory Joseph and Delon Wright – with guaranteed salaries. Most teams kept only three points guards at that time. VanVleet believed in himself and gradually earned a role in Toronto. He hit so many big shots in this series and scored 22 in the Game 6 clincher.
Nick Nurse coached at one basketball outpost after another. He shuffled between Great Britain, Belgium, small college, U.S. minor leagues. It wasn’t always a glamorous life. Eventually, he got his shot coaching the Raptors and pushed so many right buttons in the Finals.
Twenty-four years ago, the NBA put two expansion franchises in Canada. The Grizzlies left Vancouver just six years later for Memphis. The Raptors remained in Toronto. They remained through losing seasons. They remained as star after star left. They remained as the team got just good enough to get heartbroken annually in the playoffs.
They remained for this.
OAKLAND — In the end, the injuries were too much.
Too much for the emotion of the final night at Oracle Arena — and a deafening crowd — to overcome.
Too much against an outstanding Toronto Raptors team that was resilient all season and came out on fire in Game 6, setting a tone that would lead them win all three games on the road at Oracle Arena in this series. The Raptors were too good, too deep, they had too much Kyle Lowry early, and too much Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard when it mattered.
Toronto made the plays late against a shorthanded Warriors squad and hung on a 114-110 win — giving the Raptors the win and Toronto its first NBA title.
The Raptors accepted the Larry O’Brien trophy in front of hundreds of Toronto fans who had traveled south with the team to witness history. Those fans were loud and had the passion that a first-time champion can inspire.
Leonard — picked up last summer on a huge roll of the dice by GM Masai Ujiri, trading away the franchise’s greatest and most popular player in DeMar DeRozan — was named Finals MVP in a redemptive moment. Leonard has missed all but nine games the previous season with a quad tendon injury, one that had fans and people around the league wondering if he would ever be the same again.
In this series, he looked like the best player on the planet.
Still, a shadow hung over this game.
Warriors’ All-Star Klay Thompson went down in the third quarter with an ugly left knee injury when he was fouled on a dunk. Thompson landed awkwardly then laid on the ground in clear pain. He came back to a huge ovation to take a couple free throws.
However, the Warriors subbed Thompson out after that, and soon he would be ruled out for the night (later an MRI confirmed an ACL tear). It made Thompson a spectator at the end. Just like Kevin Durant (who was in New York recovering from surgery to repair a torn Achilles suffered in Game 5).
“I mean more than the what-ifs is just feeling bad for the players involved,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Injuries are always part of the NBA season — any professional sport, injuries play a huge role. It’s just the nature of these injuries, the severity of these injuries… But it’s just brutal. It’s just brutal of what these guys have had to deal with and what they’re dealing with right now.”
It wasn’t just Durant and Thompson. Kevon Looney was playing through a fractured collar bone. Andre Iguodala was hobbling with a calf injury. DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t moving well coming off a torn quad. It forced Steve Kerr to reach deep into his bench throw out lineups not ready for the NBA Finals… and yet it almost worked.
Not against these Raptors, however.
Lowry — the face of the Raptors organization now — set the tone early. He was aggressive and red-hot, scoring the game’s first eight points and he finished the first quarter with 15 on 5-of-6 shooting. The Raptors led for much of the first quarter, but eventually Game 6 Thompson showed up, scoring 10 in the frame, and by the end it was 33-32 Raptors in a game where both teams had offensive ratings north of 118.
The second quarter was back and forth, but a theme started to emerge — the Warriors could not slow this Raptors offense, the only way Golden State was going to win was with an offensive avalanche. It was a change because defense had been the Warriors’ calling card through this run of five straight trips to the Finals. Golden State had the best defense in the NBA when this core won its first title in 2014-15, and over the next two seasons they were sixth and second in the league. The D took a step back in the 2017-18 season to 11th in the league during the regular season, but the Warriors cranked it up and had the best defense in the playoffs last season on their way to another title.
This season the Warriors were not the same on that end.
And the Raptors had scorers. Lowry and Siakam each scored 26, while Leonard and Fred VanVleet each had 26. In Game 5 the Raptors thought a their loss at home was largely due to struggling from three, but they were 13-of-33 (39.4 percent) in Game 6.
The Raptors had a 116.5 offensive rating in Game 6, for some perspective that would have been tied for the best regular season average of any team (the Warriors). Toronto attacked the Golden State centers off the dribble and, with the injuries, Steve Kerr ran out of options to counter it.
He ran out of options in this series overall, and Toronto had all the answers. Toronto was the better team and it is the champion.
OAKLAND — Game 6 is shaping up to be a barn burner. At this point in the series both offenses know where they want to attack, and both teams came out firing — both the Raptors and Warriors had an offensive rating north of 118.5 in the first quarter.
Nobody came out hotter than Toronto’s Kyle Lowry — he had the game’s first eight points and finished the first quarter with 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting.
It was 33-32 Raptors after one quarter, Game 6 was shaping up to be a classic.
OAKLAND — “We do it for Kevin.”
That was Klay Thompson’s assessment of Golden State’s motivation after the two-time Finals MVP went down with a torn Achilles.
Thursday night also will be the final Warriors game inside Oracle Arena. Ever. After 47 years in the gritty, loud building in the heart of Oakland, the team will pack up and move to a glitzy, expensive new arena in the middle of San Francisco next season. Thursday night is a chance to exit Oracle and Oakland in style.
“This has been just an incredible environment in which to coach, and play back in the day,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Even when the Warriors weren’t any good, to come in here as a visitor and feel the energy in this building, you could tell that the fans loved the game. This was a basketball hotbed. And just the atmosphere out there, the energy, the noise, over the last five years with our team’s rise, combined with that organic energy that this place has always had, it’s just been an incredible experience to coach here.”
Throw in the fact that the Warriors still have their backs up against the wall, down 3-2 in these NBA Finals, and it’s obvious Golden State has a lot to play for.
This is the Warriors’ last stand in Oakland.
Will that be enough?
It’s going to take more than motivation for Golden State to force a Game 7.
The simple fact is the Toronto Raptors have been the better team in this series — including taking the two Finals games played at Oracle already. Toronto has won 14 of the 20 quarters played this series, the Warriors four (two were tied). One of those Warriors quarters was the first quarter of Game 5, when Durant was playing.
This will have to be another Splash Brothers’ game. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined to shoot 12-of-27 from three in Game 5 — including three makes from beyond the arc in the final three minutes to secure the win. The pair combined 57 points. It was a game that added to their legacy and fueled a Warriors team that shot 20-of-42 from deep.
The Splash Brothers will have to do it again, this time against a Raptors team that knows it needs to be better dialed in on defense.
“We don’t want to give up that many to those guys…” Raptors’ coach Nick Nurse said of Curry and Thompson’s 27 threes. “Still, we got to figure out a way to control those two. There’s transition. There are pin downs. They’re excellent at pushing off to create space. Their screens are long, wide and moving that they’re coming around a lot. So you got to work doubly, triply hard sometimes. You got to absorb contact at the start. You got to absorb contact coming off the screen. Sometimes you put two on the ball screens. There’s lots of stuff going on out there. But we do need to do better.”
Expect to see a lot of the Stephen Curry/Draymond Green pick-and-roll, because the Raptors (like pretty much the entire league) have not been able to slow that play down.
DeMarcus Cousins also is going to have to have another good game. Cousins had 14 points and six rebounds in Game 5, stepping up when Durant went down and providing an offensive spark. Cousins needs to score like that to balance things out because the Raptors are attacking him on defense — both Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry had success in the second half going right at Cousins off switches and picks.
How much Cousins plays depends on what Kevon Looney can give, Looney is questionable but likely will again try to play through the pain of his fractured collarbone.
Green also has to have a huge impact on both ends of the court for the Warriors to win.
One other thing to watch: How does Pascal Siakam respond to being benched the final nine minutes of Game 5? Norman Powell was getting some of those minutes, and that’s a tradeoff the Warriors will take.
It’s hard to imagine the Warriors dropping a closeout game — both for the series and the arena — at home on Thursday night… then again, it was hard to imagine the Warriors losing Games 3 and 4.
This is an elite Raptors defense that has smothered the Warriors in the halfcourt most of this series. The Warriors need transition buckets, and they need some breaks and baskets in the halfcourt.
If not, well, the story of Oracle may not have a fairytale ending.