OAKLAND – Masai Ujiri rolled the dice 11 months ago – the great basketball gamble of his NBA life – and now he has delivered what he promised on the day he was first hired as general manager.
The unlikely Toronto Raptors are champions of the NBA.
The team that used to be an NBA punchline, or just a team no one paid much attention to, will be celebrating into the night and into the weekend and probably beyond that, with a parade on its way the likes of which Toronto has never experienced before.
The team Ujiri put together, the giant move coming from the acquisition of the stone-cold basketball assassin, Kawhi Leonard, was unexpected from the first day of the playoffs to the final emotional ending on Thursday night at Oracle Arena.
And now they celebrate with the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the first Canadian team to do so, the only Canadian team to ever win this elusive championship.
It’s the only time in NBA history in which the final five games of a playoff series were won consecutively by the road team.
And they are the first Canadian major-league winner since Joe Carter hit a walk-off home run in 1993 to make the Blue Jays back-to-back World Series champions. That was 26 years ago: For much of the city, so much of the country, that’s just a film clip, something they didn’t experience or feel part of, something a 35-old might remember today, but almost everyone below that age has never known before.
Ujiri knew he was attempting something special – he just didn’t know how special when he went through the emotional ordeal and sent the very popular DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio as part of a controversial and upsetting deal for Leonard and Danny Green. He didn’t know how Leonard would adapt to life as a Raptor, didn’t know how healthy the previously injured Leonard was, after missing almost all of last season. He didn’t know if Kawhi really wanted to play in Toronto, or cared to be a Raptor.
He just believed in what he was acquiring – trusted his instincts on bringing in what he called the best player in the NBA at a time when the real best player, LeBron James, was leaving Cleveland for the West Coast.
On Thursday night, the last NBA game to be played at Oracle Arena, the Raptors ended up with a monumental 114-110 victory over the historically great Golden State Warriors, in their fifth straight NBA Finals, and Leonard led the way as he has done through so much of the post-season.
Leonard scored 22 points to give him 732 for the entire playoff run. And that, too, is part of the history of the occasion. The Leonard numbers now list him among the all-time greats at playoff time, as he secured his second NBA Finals MVP award.
Leonard ended four rounds of the playoffs with the third-most playoff points in history. That is amazing on its own. The two players ahead of him: Michael Jordan at 759 points, LeBron at 748. Had the series gone to a seventh game at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Leonard could have wound up as the leading all-time playoff scorer in a single season.
Pretty good company for the Raptors giant and, really, for a team historically known for tripping over itself at playoff time.
What Toronto has learned, and what the remarkable response across the country has shown, is an amazing appreciation for the vast skills Leonard brings. And while America appears obsessed over who will join LeBron in Los Angeles and what team Kevin Durant will sign with after rupturing his Achilles tendon in Game 5, Canada and the Raptors will thankfully take what they’ve gotten from the remarkable Leonard.
Yes, he had been named a Finals MVP before with the Spurs. But virtually no one talked about him in the same sentence as LeBron, or two-time playoff MVP Durant. Only now, he is right there with everyone in the game, at the highest level, and has emerged in these playoffs as the great basketball weightlifter.
He has carried the Raptors to this championship – more than carried them.
He has brought a mood, a purpose, a seriousness, a Zen-like calmness to a basketball team that was known mostly for underachieving. And that’s before getting to the court. His giant hands, his defensive play, his magical ability to make shots when they matter most – that wasn’t just what Leonard did, while playing selectively through a load-management program designed by sports scientist Alex McKechnie in the regular season.
Leonard has taught the Raptors how to win, how to win the big ones, how to approach games, the man of few words being the loudest and most important player on the court. Doing more in one season than any Toronto athlete in the big-league history of Canada’s largest sporting city.
Whether he chooses to stay in Toronto now – he is eligible for free agency next month if he so opts – is not the emotional issue it might have been when the season began. He has given all he could give to the Raptors and to city starving for a championship, to a country that became engaged with basketball in a way no one could have predicted and, really, no one would have believed in, even as recently as two months ago.
Ujiri, the team president, with general manager Bobby Webster, made the deal for Leonard hoping for results, believing in results, but never certain how it would all turn out.
The trade for Leonard was a gamble, as was the firing of coach of the year Dwane Casey, and the hiring of rookie coach Nick Nurse, that decision made before Leonard was acquired and LeBron opted out of Cleveland.
So here was a new coach, with a star player who was having trouble getting along with the legendary Gregg Popovich and the great San Antonio Spurs organization. Frankly, there was reason to doubt the mysterious Kawhi. Ujiri made the move others in the NBA failed to accomplish, a move many wouldn’t even consider. Ujiri had Nurse, then Leonard and salt-of-the-earth Danny Green, and he didn’t stop working on the roster. The Raptors pursued shooter Nikola Mirotic near the trade deadline, but were frustrated when he was dealt to Milwaukee instead. That pushed Ujiri to go hard after centre Marc Gasol in Memphis, who came to the Raptors late in the regular season and, over a reasonably short time, changed so much of what the Raptors did.
Gasol played great defence, passed the ball so well he completely altered the Raptors offence, opening up the three-point shot for his team. Like Leonard, he brought an understanding and a calmness and a maturity that just helped Toronto get that much better.
After winning more games than they’d ever won before – and being swept out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers – Ujiri fired the coach of the year and changed four of five starters in his sixth season in charge. That, by itself, took all kinds of stones. It was an enormous leap of business on his part. It took huge guts to make these kinds of transactions, and even as the Raptors began the playoff with another loss at home, they weren’t anybody’s pick to win a title.
Except they are champions now. They will be champions for life. This becomes a Canadian sporting moment for the ages – added to the list of the goals scored by Paul Henderson and Sidney Crosby, Stanley Cups won in Edmonton, Montreal and Calgary, the two gold-medal runs by Donovan Bailey and friends, the home runs by Carter, Ed Sprague and Robbie Alomar and Mike Weir winning the Masters.
The biggest Raptors moment before this title? Vince Carter winning a slam-dunk competition at the NBA all-star game.
After that, most of Raptors history is a blur of defeats and almost-weres. The city, Toronto, hasn’t had anything like this to celebrate before, because when the Blue Jays were winning 26 and 27 years ago, there was no social media, no Facebook, no Instagram, nothing that gathered people together all across the country the way they managed to do so in this two-month party that’s had so many watching an indoor game on an outdoor screen.
Now there’s a parade coming, and there’s no reason for Tim Leiweke or Ron Wilson or anyone else to get cynical about these rather remarkable champions.
The Toronto Raptors have made history – life-changing history – and pulled us along for a glorious ride.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019