The Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors 114-110 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to claim the franchise's first championship. Here are some takeaways from the end of the two finalists' seasons:
There are certain champions in sport that emanate an indescribable aura on their journey to immortality. In recent history, teams like the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, 2016 Chicago Cubs, and 2018 Washington Capitals come to mind.
Sometimes an all-time great transforms into an unstoppable force at just the right time. Sometimes a collection of hungry veterans refuse to accept defeat any longer, or a playoff mainstay that's knocked on the door of greatness year after year finally decides to kick that door down. Sometimes it's as simple as a long-tormented fan base that can sense the impossible is finally plausible, willing its team to new heights.
And sometimes, as is the case for the 2019 Toronto Raptors, a team checks all of those boxes.
Whatever it is that creeps up over the course of a playoff run to convince us that we might be in the presence of one of these teams of destiny, the Raptors had it.
Reeling off five straight wins after a playoff-opening loss to the Orlando Magic might not have convinced you. The same goes for Kawhi Leonard pulling the Raptors off the mat in Game 4 at Philadelphia. Perhaps doubt persisted after Leonard's historic Game 7 buzzer-beater, even after its four bounces seemed to defy the laws of physics.
Trailing 2-0 in the East finals a week later, the Raptors survived a double-overtime Game 3 thriller against the top-seeded Bucks despite foul trouble and a hobbled Leonard. Milwaukee wouldn't win another game. The Raptors marched on.
After surrendering homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals with a Game 2 loss to the two-time defending champion Warriors, the Raptors went into Oracle Arena needing just one road win to recapture it. Leonard said f--- that, let's get both - literally - and they did.
And finally, after snatching defeat from the jaws of a historic victory in the closing minutes of Game 5, the Raptors headed back to Oracle for Game 6, where they became the first team since the 2001 Lakers (and just the seventh team ever) to win three road games in the Finals.
There was no shaking this team. At every turn, the Raptors met bumps in the road head-on and rose to the occasion - adversity bouncing off of them like Kevon Looney trying to prevent Leonard from getting to the rim.
Leonard was the unstoppable force, securing his second Finals MVP award to cap a magical playoff run during which he averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.7 steals on 49-38-88 shooting. Only Michael Jordan and LeBron James have scored more total points in a single postseason.
Ibaka lost in the 2012 Finals and was part of a Thunder team that blew a 3-1 lead against Golden State in the 2016 West finals. He wasn't to be denied this year, putting together breathtaking bursts throughout these playoffs, and almost always in the immediate aftermath of his roughest stretches of the season.
Gasol, one of the pillars of the "Grit 'n Grind" Grizzlies, provided Toronto with a combination of playmaking and defense that the team so desperately craved from a center when it sacrificed its depth to acquire him at the trade deadline. Gasol's heart may always belong to Memphis, but he left an indelible mark on the basketball soul of Canada, even marking his first interview as an NBA champion with a "We the North" battle cry.
Lowry, as usual, was the Raptors' heartbeat throughout their quest. He bounced back from poor shooting nights with an aggression that was so predictable, it almost became comical, and he set the tone for Toronto's biggest games. On Thursday night at Oracle, Lowry single-handedly outscored the Warriors over the first 4:51, had a hand in 22 of the Raptors' 33 first-quarter points, and finished with 26 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds, and three steals.
Over the final two rounds, Lowry averaged 17.7 points on 46-42-82 shooting. Through the postseason, only one player (Draymond Green) even took half the amount of charges Lowry did, and no one recovered more loose balls. If you wanted to see a visible representation of insatiable hunger, all you had to do was observe the look in Lowry's eyes over the last two months. No one was taking this from him. Not this time.
A couple of Raptors mainstays helped Lowry and Co. finally kick down that door.
Pascal Siakam, a G League Finals MVP just two years ago, cemented his status as a rising star - and a worthy Pippen to Leonard's Jordan - by averaging 19.8 points on 51 percent shooting in the Finals. Fred VanVleet went from looking downright unplayable through two-and-a-half rounds to summoning the big-shot ghosts of Robert Horry and Chauncey Billups over the last three weeks. In some sort of reverse-Monstars jinx after the birth of his second child last month, VanVleet posted an absurd 51-53-86 shooting split over the playoffs' final nine games.
As a collective, the Raptors will be remembered for a smothering defense capable of both corralling superstars and suffocating supporting casts in the halfcourt.
Joel Embiid said he was the most dominant player in the league at one point this season, but Gasol's IQ and dad strength neutralized him inside like it did Nikola Vucevic in the first round. Giannis Antetokounmpo said no one player could guard him, but Leonard practically turned the MVP front-runner into a helpless bystander over the final four games of the East finals. VanVleet, Lowry, and Danny Green, meanwhile, spent the Finals admirably hounding Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson over, through, and around a dizzying array of screens.
Through it all, there was that incomparable Raptors fan base, swelling and growing more rabid with each victory en route to the Larry O'Brien Trophy, so starved for success that they flooded the streets just to celebrate the franchise's first trip to the Finals.
By the title-clinching Game 6 against the Warriors, 59 Jurassic Park viewing parties had come to life across Canada, and silent, heartbroken spring nights of the past gave way to a raucous party the likes of which Toronto has never seen.
After finding themselves on fortune's good side over the last five years, the Warriors were snakebitten by devastating injuries during the 2019 playoffs.
Kevin Durant missed half the postseason with a calf injury before returning only to rupture his Achilles in Game 5 of the Finals, Thompson blew out his knee in the title-clincher after battling through a hamstring issue throughout the series, DeMarcus Cousins missed most of the playoffs with a quad injury suffered early in the first round, and both Looney and Andre Iguodala were limited by injuries at various points of the Finals.
Those injuries, and the collective toll of five consecutive Finals runs, helped Toronto slay a team that Steve Kerr aptly referred to as "f------ giants." The wounded Warriors showed incredible resolve not only in making this a series but in their continued attempts to play through pain. Thompson, for example, with a freshly torn ACL, told Kerr he needed only a few minutes off on Thursday.
But those non-Durant injuries aside, the Dubs weren't winning this series without the two-time Finals MVP. It was evident in the way that the Raptors mostly dominated the series and in the way that the Warriors flexed their unstoppable offensive muscle for the one quarter that KD did take the court in Game 5.
It's one thing for the trio of Lowry, VanVleet, and Green to limit the Splash Brothers - or for Nick Nurse's team to employ a box-and-one against Curry-led lineups without Thompson on the floor - when Durant isn't around to tip the scales. His presence changes the equation.
Look at this Golden State dynasty as a whole. A 67-win team scraped by a Cavaliers squad without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love in the Finals in 2015, only for the 73-win Warriors to blow a 3-1 series lead against Cleveland in 2016. Three years later, the Durant-less Warriors didn't seem to have many answers for the Raptors. With KD running away with Finals MVP awards in 2017 and 2018, however, Golden State cruised to championships in five games or less.
None of this is meant to discredit the Warriors before or after KD. They were a historically great team before he arrived, and showed the true heart of a champion in his wake. But there's a big difference between great and inevitable. Durant was that difference, and he reminded the world of it when, on a bum leg, he scored 11 points in 12 minutes of a Finals elimination game after partaking in just one practice over the previous month.
There were cracks in the Warriors' dynastic foundation all year. Their 57-win regular season didn't include the same type of demoralizing dominance we had grown accustomed to, and inferior opponents no longer seemed to fear them. Heck, the star-less Clippers didn't fear them down 31 points in a playoff game at Oracle. But there was still a sense that with Durant leading the charge, and emerging as the undisputed best player in basketball early in the postseason, the Warriors had enough to survive one more war of attrition between April and June.
Unfortunately for the Warriors, Durant would end up being the biggest casualty of that battle.
Between the final two contests of the first round and his last healthy appearance in the conference semis against Houston, Durant averaged an unfathomable 43.8 minutes over a six-game sample. He then played 32 of 34 possible minutes the night he strained his calf against the Rockets and 12 of a possible 14 minutes the night he ruptured his Achilles.
At a moment of conflict earlier this season, and at a time when no one could've envisioned the unfortunate events that were to follow in the playoffs, Draymond Green reportedly told Durant that the Warriors didn't need him. In the end, that couldn't have been further from the truth. It turns out the Warriors actually needed Durant too much for their own - and his own - good.