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The Toronto Raptors have made the NBA Finals, but it is in no small part due to the trials and tribulations they went through during the regular season. A team defined by continuity and heart, they entered 2018-2019 with a new focus and shockingly a new star.
Despite a surprisingly consistent change in personnel, the Toronto Raptors not only had two All-Stars (Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry), but Pascal Siakam has risen to the top of the NBA list of young stars.
Their perseverance and consistency as managed by head coach Nick Nurse led the Toronto Raptors to a 58-24 record, good enough for second in the Eastern Conference and NBA. They were one of only two teams to be top five in both offensive (113.1) and defensive (107.1) efficiency and looked primed for a deep playoff run.
The Toronto Raptors had an incredibly arduous road in the NBA Playoffs. In the second seed, they held home court advantage over all but the number one seed, and their journey began with one of the NBA’s hottest teams – the Orlando Magic.
The Orlando Magic stepped up to the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. They had a positive winning record after the All-Star break, which pushed them to a matchup with the Raptors as the seventh seed.
F Kawhi Leonard – 27.8 PPG | 6.6 RPG | 1.2 SPG | .538 3P%
F Pascal Siakam – 22.6 PPG | 8.4 RPG | 3.0 APG | .533 FG%
G Kyle Lowry – 11.4 PPG | 4.8 RPG | 8.6 APG | 2.0 SPG
The Orlando Magic were a young and athletic team that physically matched up well with the Raptors while also being able to push the pace on the break. While their enthusiasm won them Game 1, the Raptors comfortably won the remainder of the series with Marc Gasol shutting down All-Star Centre Nikola Vucevic from making any significant impact.
The second-round brought the Raptors an old playoff rival in the Philadelphia 76ers, led by three All-Stars – Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid. Their offensive and defensive ability challenged the Raptors all series long.
F Kawhi Leonard – 34.7 PPG | 9.9 RPG | 4.0 APG | 1.3 SPG
F Pascal Siakam – 19.4 PPG | 6.4 RPG | 2.1 APG | 2.0 SPG
G Kyle Lowry – 13.1 PPG | 5.1 RPG | 6.0 APG | 1.0 SPG
The Philadelphia 76ers were a difficult matchup for the Raptors. In rhythm, they could attack and defend toe-to-toe with the Toronto Raptors. Only when the Raptors could find their range could they compete. Gasol did another masterful job against an All-Star Centre (Embiid), and the series culminated in a win with the shot heard around the world.
The first game-winning field goal at the buzzer in a Game 7 in #NBAPlayoffs history!@kawhileonard CALLS SERIES in #PhantomCam! #TissotBuzzerBeater #ThisIsYourTime #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/XbiDyYqxK1
NBA (@NBA) May 13, 2019
The Conference Finals presented the toughest test the Raptors have had to face in their entire season. The Milwaukee Bucks had the better of them during the regular season and after winning the first two matches it seemed over for the Raptors chances.
F Kawhi Leonard – 29.8 PPG | 9.5 RPG | 4.3 APG | 2.2 SPG
G Kyle Lowry – 19.2 PPG | 5.5 RPG | 5.2 APG | .465 3P%
F Pascal Siakam – 14.5 PPG | 6.5 RPG | 2.3 APG | 1.2 SPG
What ensued was an absolute drubbing of the Milwaukee Bucks by the Toronto Raptors. After going down 0-2 in the series, the Raptors stormed back to win four straight. Double the amount of consecutive losses the Bucks ever suffered during the 18-19 regular season. With their defining performance, the Raptors have booked their trip to the NBA Finals.
These Toronto Raptors are different than years past. It isn’t just the obvious inclusion of one of the NBA’s most elite talents Kawhi Leonard either. When adversity strikes the Toronto Raptors they’ve overcome it with composure, passion, and a feeling of certainty in clutch situations.
When the Toronto Raptors took a punch to the jaw and lost Game 1 to the Orlando Magic, media wrote them off as a failure to improve. They were then pushed to seven against the “more talented” and much more marketable Philadelphia 76ers. Most recently going down 0-2 against the Bucks seemed to spell their doom in the eyes of casual observers.
The common thread across each of these series’ is that the Toronto Raptors, when faced with adversity, come together and execute to take home a win. Where past opponents of the Warriors were led by a single star, the Raptors are uniquely equipped to work as a team to defeat their supposed superiors.
When Kawhi Leonard missed the majority of last season with an injury many chalked it up to a dramatic attitude that no longer represented what the Spurs project as a team. As he suited up for the Raptors it is clear that he is a hardened player, who was merely looking out for his own health against the wishes of short-sighted advisors.
“Load Management” was the name of the game for Kawhi Leonard and it has worked wonders. While slightly hobbled in these playoffs, it is clear that had he played the 22 missed games during the regular season he wouldn’t have the stamina to play through such injuries now. While the likes of Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo boasted about how they couldn’t be stopped by any team or individual, Leonard’s singular focus and determination prove his maturity is what drives his success.
“I don’t care about being the best player. I want to be the best team.
– Kawhi Leonard
Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) May 26, 2019
He has been tremendous in these playoffs. He’s averaged 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals. Amazingly, his offense is second to his tremendous defense which locked down the oppositions most talented wing players at a moments notice. While Durant was the star before his injury, Leonard has shown himself to be the best two-way player in the game.
Home court advantage is the Toronto Raptors’ most valuable asset going into this series. Mostly due to the comfort allowed for their reserves, who perform much better in Canada. After a series of struggles, it seems they’ve rounded into form.
Raptors bench has been huge in back to back games pic.twitter.com/OqbW7ElYra
Off the Glass (@otgbasketball) May 24, 2019
After a poor series against the Sixers, which bled into the first two games against the Bucks, it seemed the Raptors couldn’t trust anybody outside of their starting five. But with some bounce back performances which led to a series win over the Bucks, the Raptors seem primed to continue their run of form.
When you compare the Raptors bench and the Warriors bench, it seems Toronto has the advantage. However, the style of play the Warriors run is conducive to their success with or without a star on the court. The Raptors have played a shorter rotation, eight-men to be exact, so each reserve player will need to be productive in the minutes given to make be most effective.
The former defensive player of the year has a more curious role than ever going into this series against the Golden State Warriors. While he played a huge role in every series to this point, stylistically he seems to be the odd man out. The Warriors are a run-and-gun team with Durant and Cousins out, but Gasol can make an impact regardless.
NBA (@NBA) May 23, 2019
While he’s brought grit-and-grind to the Toronto Raptors, auxiliary to his defensive ability, Marc Gasol’s ability as a playmaker is top-notch. He initiates the Raptors defense, especially for the less capable shot-creators on the side. He can also stretch the defense and punish smaller defenders in the post.
Whether or not the Warriors run him off the court is what will determine his effectiveness in the series. He can guard Green or any Warriors center in the half court but expect Gasol’s early play in the transition to define his series.
The game of basketball itself was invented by a Canadian. After years of fighting, the Toronto Raptors were one of two fledglings, Canadian organizations to join the NBA in 1995. The now defunct Vancouver Grizzlies were purchased by Memphis as the Raptors are now the North’s sole representative. With a nation behind them, the Raptors’ finals appearance is massive for not just Canada, but the international market.
In 1946, the city of Toronto hosted the 1st game in NBA history as the Knicks took on the Huskies.
In 1995, the @Raptors were born inspiring a new generation of Canadian ballers.
NBA Canada (@NBACanada) May 29, 2019
Over the past 25 years, the popularity of basketball has risen exponentially. At the beginning of this season, eleven players on NBA rosters were Canadian while it seems more are set to join the league in the 2019 NBA Draft – led by RJ Barrett.
Television ratings are always skewed against the Raptors as Canadian viewership doesn’t count toward American numbers. However, it shows promise for thoughts of expansion into the likes Mexico, Europe, and the new NBA Africa League coming soon. The Raptors are representing not just Canda, but the world on this platform. It will be a jumping off point for international expansion, win or lose.
It is difficult to bet against the Golden State Warriors in this series. They’ve won four of the last five NBA Championships, securing their dynasty as one of the NBA’s great franchises. Can the Raptors be the Pistons to the Warriors’ Lakers?
The Toronto Raptors have the pieces to succeed, it just comes down to putting it all together. They have some slight reprieve with the likes of Cousins and Durant likely out of the lineup going forward, so they should capitalize early and with their home court advantage if they hope to take the series for themselves.
The Toronto Raptors take on the Golden State Warriors on Thursday, May 30th at 9:00 PM EST at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, ON, Canada. Broadcast is available on ABC.
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Christian Jope is a writer, social media strategist, and data analyst. A Queen’s University Alumni, Christian is an author and social media strategist with Raptors Cage, while also working closely with MLSE and Canada Basketball through community-driven events.
Email: [email protected]More info on Christian Jope
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