Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the Toronto Raptors winning their first-ever NBA title with a clinching Game 6 win over the Golden State Warriors. As such, we're looking back at some of the biggest moments and stories from Raptors run to the championship.
This story was originally published on June 13, 2019.
The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions.
I'm honestly not even sure how to process what just happened given the road the Raptors took to get to this point.
Never mind for a minute the long and winding road of roster construction and unlikely chain of events that led to this specific group of players coming together.
Focus instead on the immediate task at hand, which began back in the second week of April, and it's almost inconceivable that the Raptors actually just pulled this off in the manner in which they did it.
The Raptors trailed not once, not twice, but three times before even reaching the NBA Finals. No team in NBA history has gone on to win the NBA title after trailing in three different series prior to playing in the Finals.
Until the Raptors.
As they almost always do, the Raptors stumbled out of the gates, losing at home to the Orlando Magic in their postseason opener back on April 13. In the glow of anticipating a postseason run in which they wouldn't have to worry about LeBron James, the Raptors were instead manhandled by D.J. Augustin. They fell to 1-10 all-time in postseason openers and for a fleeting minute, the painful memories of past postseason failures came rushing back to the forefront.
Then they rattled off four straight to advance.
Against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Raptors fell down 2-1 and trailed on the road in the fourth quarter of what was essentially a must-win to avoid the dreaded 3-1 deficit. With the game in the balance, Kawhi Leonard calmly stroked a step-back 3 over the outstretched arms of Joel Embiid, a shot that will likely over time get lost in the shuffle of what happened later in the series, but one critical to ensuring the Raptors made it that far in the first place.
In a back-and-forth Game 7 in which they once again trailed in the fourth quarter in a game that much of the roster looked lost, they needed an all-time performance and iconic shot from Kawhi Leonard to make it to the Conference Finals.
Against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors looked toast. After falling down 2-0, including a Game 2 loss in Milwaukee in which they were blown out, the Raptors somehow found a way to win a double OT thriller in Game 3. But not before Pascal Siakam missed both free throws in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, which would have clinched the win and instead led to Khris Middleton's bucket to force overtime.
That win marked the first of four straight to close the series and push the Raptors to their first NBA Finals in franchise history.
Then, of course, came the crowning achievement, a six game show of force in which the Raptors thoroughly outplayed the Golden State Warriors and left no doubt. Even if the Raptors never trailed in the series, they repeatedly fought back and either stomped out comebacks by the Warriors before they could ignite or mounted comebacks of their own as they did in Game 4 when it appeared the Warriors might run away with it early.
Perhaps more so than any of the previous series in which they trailed, the task of taking down the champs demanded a level-headed resolve and ability to execute and stay composed in the face of a team that nobody else has been able to slow down. They also did it by winning three games on the Warriors' home floor, becoming just the seventh team to win three road games in the NBA Finals and the first to do it against a defending champion. Again... unprecedented.
Sure, the Warriors were wounded and not 100 percent, and there will still be naysayers ready to put an asterisk next to the 2019 NBA Finals, especially after Kevin Durant went down with a ruptured Achilles in Game 5 after returning to play just 12 minutes. Klay Thompson leaving Game 6 while in the midst of an all-time back-against-the-wall performance will surely fuel the asterisk fire. But by dominating in the manner they did throughout the majority of the series, the Raptors made a convincing case that this series played out the exact same way it would have even if everyone on both sides was fully healthy.
That's an important distinction as well given the Raptors aren't exactly a pillar of health. Kawhi Leonard noticeably tweaked his knee in Game 3 against the Bucks and has not been healthy since. Kyle Lowry dislocated his thumb in Game 7 against the 76ers and has been playing through pain since. Fred VanVleet caught an elbow to the face in Game 4 of the Finals that left him with a badly chipped tooth and needing stitches. Alex McKechnie, Toronto's director of sports science, and his staff have had their work cut out for them to patch this teams up and get it across the finish line.
But this isn't a story about health or overcoming injuries. To steer the conversation at large in that direction only serves to disrespect the achievement of winning the NBA title and all that the Raptors accomplished.
It's not about asterisks, either.
It's about resilience.
It's about fight.
It's about hunger.
It's about raising the bar and no longer settling for moral victories.
It's about refusing to fall prey to the same pitfalls from the past.
It's about atoning for so many previous forays into the postseason, all of which ended in disappointment.
There's not a script writer in the world that could come up with a more fitting way for the Raptors to finally win it all than to repeatedly get back off the mat after being dropped by each and every foe along the way, to do it in a way that no other team in the history of the league has ever done it.
The Toronto Raptors are the most resilient champions in NBA history.
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