The National Basketball Association has been around for 73 years, and a Canadian team has never been in the finals before, never mind winning. That all changed in this 2018-19 season as the Toronto Raptors, lead by Kawhi Leonard, had a crazy playoff run which ended with them taking home the championship against Golden State.
Leonard was traded by the San Antonio Spurs to the Raptors in the 2018 offseason. The Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green for DeMar Derozan, Jacob Poeltl, and a 2019 projected first-round pick. This was one of the biggest trades in NBA history, and a huge gamble by the Raptors, as Kawhi only had 1 year left on his contract and said he would prefer to go to LA, so the chances were low for the three-time all-star to stay in Toronto after this season.
In the regular season, Kawhi put up some really good numbers, averaging 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.8 steals. He was 6th in the league in points per game, and 7th in steals. He played only 60 of the 82 regular season games, as he rested the odd one due to an injury that he’s had for a while. He said if he played every game in the regular season, he probably wouldn’t be fit to play in the playoffs.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Raptors played the Magic. Kawhi averaged 27.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1.2 steals. They ended up winning that series 4-1, only giving up the first game to a DJ Augustin game-winner. Toronto went on to face Philadelphia in the second round. Kawhi dropped 45 in game one with 11 boards, and they took game one in Toronto. Game 7 was close all the way through. With 10.6 seconds left on the clock, the score was 89-88 for the Raps. Kawhi was fouled. He headed to the free throw line and hit the first shot, but came up short on the second one. Tobias Harris got the rebound, gave it straight to Jimmy Butler, and he runs straight down the court and gets a crucial layup. Raptors call a timeout with 4.2 seconds left. When it was time for Gasol to inbound the ball, he gives it to who other than Kawhi. With the ball in his hands, Kawhi runs towards the corner of the court with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid all over him. He goes for the heavily contested fadeaway jumper, as the whole arenas on their feet. The ball bounces four times on the rim before going in the net. The arena went crazy! Toronto went crazy, on what was probably the greatest moment in Raptor history.
Now for the conference finals, the Raptors faced the best team in the regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks are a big team built around Giannis Antetokounmpo. Kawhi lead almost every game in points this series. The Raptors lost their first two games in Milwaukee even though Leonard had 31 points in both. Back to Toronto for games 3 and 4, the Raptors noticed Giannis struggling when defended by Kawhi. His field goal percentage dropped significantly. In game 1 and 2 he had been shooting .438 and .500, but with Kawhi’s defense in the rest of the series, he averaged below .400. The Raptors won the next four games to advance to the NBA Finals, something no other Raptor team had ever done.
In the finals, they faced a Golden State Warrior team that had been to the finals 5 years in a row. But Kevin Durant would be out for the first five games with an Achilles injury. Raptors took game 1, even though Steph Curry was hot. Kawhi had 23 points, with 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. In game 2, it was back and forth, but in the fourth quarter the Warriors started gaining a lead, and Kawhi was leading the Raptors to climb back in, but the Igudala dagger secured a game two win for Golden State. Kawhi had 34 points and 14 boards. Toronto had comfortable wins in games 3 and 4 with scores of 123-109 and 105-92. Kawhi lead Toronto to both those wins with 30 and 36 points. Game 5 was scary. The Raptors had a chance to win the championship, but Warriors had all 5 all-stars on the team with the return of Durant. They came out hot, hitting just about everything, but the Raptors were hanging in there. Then early in the second quarter, Durant went for a crossover, and immediately drops the ball and falls to the ground. He leaves the game with another Achilles injury. Klay and Steph still manage to clutch up for their team and take the win in game 5.
Game 6 was back in Golden State and the Raptors weren’t playing games. Four players on Toronto had over 20 points, including Fred Van Vleet coming off the bench. Lowry had a crazy first quarter scoring the first eleven points including three 3-pointers. He had 15 points by the end of the first quarter. But the Warriors had the lead for most of the game. Then in the third quarter, Klay was on fire but when he came down after a contested dunk, he fell awkwardly, injuring his ACL. That would keep him out for the rest of the game. Raptors took advantage of that as they took over the fourth quarter with Kawhi and Van Vleet leading the team. That was enough to take home the championship, with a final score of 114-110.
All these years of trying to win the championship, and then Kawhi Leonard comes and gets it in his first year in Toronto. I guess it’s okay to say that he’s the greatest Raptor ever.