- The Raptors were always the stepping stone to someone else's moment. Now, after defeating the Warriors in six games to win their first NBA title, they finally know what it's like to reach the mountain top.
The 2019 Raptors will be remembered for defying their own convention, and they will have a championship to show for it. Toronto secured its first ever NBA title with a 114–110 win over the depleted Warriors in Game 6 of the Finals. For years, the Raptors found themselves drawing the short end of the stick. They didn’t have the talent. They didn’t get the bounces. They didn’t have the depth. All of that changed in a postseason run that will now be remembered forever.
In 2018, in the second round of the playoffs, LeBron James devastated the Raptors with a running, one-handed bank shot that effectively destroyed their season. In 2019, in the second round of the playoffs, Toronto defeated the Sixers thanks to a fadeaway three-point shot by Kawhi Leonard, that bounced on the rim four times before dramatically dropping. For years, the Raptors were running into a glass ceiling because of the struggles of their top-end talent, with DeMar DeRozan repeatedly coming up short in the playoffs. In 2019, Toronto had Kawhi—perhaps the best player in the sport at this very moment, and easily the best player on the floor in every one of the Raptors‘ postseason games. And in the seasons before this one, when DeRozan or Kyle Lowry struggled, Toronto had no one to pick up the slack. In 2019, the Raptors had a group of cagey vets like Marc Gasol, Danny Green, and Serge Ibaka, as well as a duo of up-and-coming difference makers in Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet.
The result is a championship, one that will prove worth the journey no matter what else happens next, whether Kawhi stays or goes, the vets age gracefully or not, or if the young guys are actually able to carry the team on their own. The NBA is a results business, but it’s the path to success that makes championships special. The Raptors, even amid the best stretch of success in the history of their franchise, were often on the comical end of disappointing losses and infuriating playoff performances. Toronto took risks this season—replacing Dwane Casey with Nick Nurse, trading for Kawhi, trading for Gasol—and those gambles paid ultimately paid off.
That journey itself will likely prove to be more satisfying in the long run than the championship clincher. Kawhi had far from his best night in Game 6. Gasol and Green combined to shoot 0-for-5. Lowry and VanVleet had big nights, but their numbers were buoyed by big halves. By the end, the Raptors moreso outlasted the Warriors than outdueled them. Already down Kevin Durant, Golden State also lost Klay Thompson, who tore his ACL and missed the final 14 minutes of the game. Toronto didn’t need to be at its very best to secure its first championship, but that in and of itself is an accomplishment for an organization that routinely couldn’t be at its best during the playoffs—and endured the embarrassments that come with that.
The championship win is legacy-altering for many involved. Leonard now has the same number of Finals wins as Durant, as well as the same number of Finals MVPs. After essentially missing the meat of two straight postseasons, Kawhi has re-thrust himself into the heart of any greatest player alive debate, and his legend-potential is as high as anyone's in the league right now. Lowry, already a fan favorite in Toronto, will now be able to justify his years of suffering and, at times, insufferable play. Masai Ujiri, the architect of the championship roster, already coveted by other teams to deliver them their own title, has long been a respected executive, but he will now be used as an example in the coming years for the front office leaders who want to take their own risks.
These are the spoils that come with winning a championship. It’s not just money, it’s not just fame. It’s immortality. This Raptors group, from top to bottom, will be remembered forever, both for helping to topple a dynasty and for bringing an entire country its first Larry O’Brien trophy. For years, Toronto was remembered for the wrong reasons. The Raptors were always the stepping stone in someone else’s journey. This season, from the moment Ujiri traded for Leonard, Toronto was the aggressor. The 2019 Raptors will be remembered for flipping the script. This time, they were the ones stepping over others on the way to success.