A Historic NBA Championship for the Raptors

The Golden State Warriors were hampered by injuries, but the league’s newest victors were built to seize on the opportunity.

The Toronto Raptors celebrate after beating the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals. (Kyle Terada / USA Today Sports / Reuters)

Midway through last night’s sixth and deciding game of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, the Toronto Raptors’ star forward Kawhi Leonard sized things up from the top of the three-point arc. Leonard—6 feet 7 inches tall and 230 pounds, with wide hands and a stony expression—took two hard dribbles to the rim, jump-stopped, and rose for a layup, but the Warriors center Kevon Looney arrived to deliver a hard foul. Leonard muscled through the contact and made the shot anyway, extending the Raptors’ three-point lead and embodying, for a moment, a team-wide theme: of hard work done simply, of advantages unflashily accrued.

By the end of the night, the Raptors had won, 114–110, to take the series four games to two, claiming the first championship in the franchise’s 24-year history and the first NBA title for any team outside the United States. Leonard was awarded Finals MVP, having averaged 28 points and almost 10 rebounds to go along with two steals and one block. Watching him tally these statistics was like watching a well-drilled student work lines of algebra.

As the distinguishing traits of champions go, readiness is not a particularly scintillating one. This is doubly true in the context of recent NBA history, which has taken on the feel of a space race. The Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant/Klay Thompson Warriors have spent the past few years inverting the court, making the far reaches beyond the three-point line the crucial territory, and their competitors have mostly tried to match their boldness, if not their specific strategy. LeBron James assembled a superstar conglomerate in Cleveland and has attempted the same in Los Angeles; the Houston Rockets have run basketball through algorithms. Contemporary thinking says the way to win a title is by reimagining the game.

There is something simultaneously retro and radical, then, about this Toronto team. Since the arrival in 2013 of the team president Masai Ujiri, the Raptors have improved steadily but incrementally. They’ve built around Kyle Lowry, a point guard more suited to hard-nosed defense than three-point heroics. They drafted Pascal Siakam, a springy, rail-thin forward who didn’t start playing basketball until age 15 and who has suddenly, three years into his pro career, become the team’s second-leading scorer. Last off-season, Ujiri traded DeMar DeRozan, an adept mid-range shooter and beloved local figure, to the San Antonio Spurs for Leonard, one of the league’s premier offensive and defensive forces (the move carried risk, as Leonard had feuded with the Spurs’ management and had only one year left on his contract). In February, Ujiri swung a deal for Marc Gasol, a center as comfortable launching jumpers and slinging crosscourt passes as patrolling the paint. No Toronto player was drafted higher than 15th, an unheard-of condition for an NBA finalist.

The resulting array of talent came to reflect something of its designer. If this Finals may be remembered for the limping end of the Warriors’ dynasty—the injuries to Durant (a strained calf and then a torn Achilles tendon) and Thompson (hamstring, then ACL), the overburdened Curry unable to compensate—it also demonstrated Toronto’s aptitude for seizing opportunity in whichever form it presented itself. “They played unselfishly and they played defense,” the head coach Nick Nurse, himself a first-year hire, said from the trophy-presentation podium postgame. “That’s a pretty good combination.”

The Raptors hounded the Warriors’ remaining healthy stars, forcing the ball into the hands of shot-averse players and, on the other end of the court, leveraging straightforward pick-and-rolls and post-ups into open looks. In Game 1, Siakam made 14 of 17 shots for 32 points; in Game 4, Leonard bullied his way to 36; last night, Lowry scored the team’s first 11 points. The backup guard Fred VanVleet, an undrafted player out of Wichita State University, emerged as a folk hero, shadowing Curry on defense and knocking in timely three-pointers whenever they seemed most needed.

One effect of having all these fresh faces—and returning ones; Leonard won the Finals MVP award once before, with the Spurs in 2014—on the NBA’s championship stage was the shaking-up of what had become a tedious LeBron James–versus-Warriors early-summer tradition. The series took on uncommon character. Game 5 saw Golden State pull off a miraculous last-second comeback following Durant’s Achilles injury; Game 6 featured archetypes unavailable to the past few NBA Finals, challengers on the precipice against depleted champions mounting a prideful stand. New figures meant new peripheral reveals, too. Fans delighted at the discovery that Leonard’s trash talk, such as it is, mirrors his pared-to-essentials style of play. College teammates, chased down for between-game fodder, reported that his go-to phrases were clipped and direct: “No” on defense, “Buckets” on offense, the comparatively effusive “Board man gets paid” after a rebound.

More broadly, the Finals signaled the start of a league-wide shift, an end to Golden State’s dominance, if not its relevance. The Warriors will be without the injured Durant and Thompson for at least the better part of next season, and possibly forever—both players are free to leave the team in the summer if they choose. The roster that remains figures to be good but no longer prohibitively favored. The strategic stakes of the league, set for the past half decade by the Warriors, are now a little less urgent. Competing for a title no longer means developing a credible plan to unseat one of the most skilled and pedigreed teams in the sport’s history. That last night’s was the final NBA game played in Oakland’s Oracle Arena—the Warriors will be moving across the bay to a new building in San Francisco next season—has an end-of-an-era resonance.

Toronto might also look different at the start of next season. Leonard, who during the process of leaving San Antonio expressed a preference for teams in his native California, declined to say during the championship celebration whether he intended to resign, and the snakebit Washington Wizards, even as confetti still floated in the air, were reported to be pursuing Ujiri. The Raptors seem unlikely to coalesce into a dynasty; it took an anomaly of physics for them to make it out of the second round. They were built to give themselves a chance, and they’ve proved that doing so is worth it, that titles don’t land with only the sport’s well-stocked futurists. After the locker-room celebration, with goggles on his forehead and champagne soaking his T-shirt, Leonard spoke to the virtues of simplicity. “I just came in with the right mind-set,” he said. “Let’s go out and win ball games.”