Just as Canada is treated as the USA’s forgotten little brother to the north, the Raptors were treated as a sideshow to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Much of the prayer attention before the Series focused on whether and when Kevin Durant would play. That story line continued during the Series, and of course reached a fever pitch once KD finally played -- and his Achilles exploded: The rare following-season-ending injury.
Klay Thompson’s hamstring injury and inability to play in Game Three was also a big story, as was his remarkable play once he came back for Games Four, Five and (three-quarters of) Game Six. As with KD, those stories paled in comparison to the understandable focus on Klay’s ACL injury prematurely ending yet another of his remarkable Game Six performances.
Those stories, along with the Warriors’ status as the defending champs in the midst of -- or likely now at the end of -- a dynasty, relegated the Raptors’ own amazing journey to second class status. I just realized I have done the same thing -- this piece began with more words about the Warriors than the Raptors. Which stops now.
I have referred to the Raptors as “Spurs North.” Originally, that reference arose because of ex-Spurs Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. But, as they say in late night commercials, “But wait, there’s more!”
First, like the best Spurs teams (other than the Great Duncan), the players did not come into the league as blue-chip high round draft picks. No one on this Raptors team was a lottery pick. We all know that Danny Green was a second round pick cut from several teams (including the Spurs) before finally making it. Marc Gasol was a second round pick (by the Lakers, who included him in a trade for his brother Pau -- later a Spur). Pascal Siakam was the 27th pick in the 2016 draft out of New Mexico State, definitely not a basketball powerhouse. Kyle Lowry, though now a semi-star (and definitely a star in Game Six), was the 24th pick (by Memphis) in the 2006 draft.
And those are the starters. Serge Ibaka was also a 24th pick, and has been around long enough that the team which drafted him, Seattle, is not. Back-up guard (and almost Finals MVP) Fred VanVleet wasn’t drafted at all.
Like the best Spurs teams, the Raptors’ team was built around their defense. They were the second best defense in the NBA this season. And like the Spurs, the Raptors have an international flavor -- and not just because they’re from Canada. After the game, Siakam’s comments sound like they could have been made by a Spurs’ player during the Big Three era (other than the reference to Toronto):
”I think that it meant a lot, just having guys from different countries and speaking different languages,” Siakam said. “I think it kind of got us closer together. And you kind of have all those little kind of friendships with guys that you can speak the same language with, and from Spanish to French to English, different cultures. And I think kind of it represents Toronto in general, having that diversity.”
Add it all up, and a very Spursian team dethroned the Warriors. And since the league champion now hails from Canada, we may want to change the league name from the National Basketball Association to the International Basketball Association. Your 2019 IBA champs, the Toronto Raptors!
Other thoughts about Game Six:
- Once again, Kawhi Leonard was clearly physically compromised, which led to his pedestrian 22 points/6 boards/3 assists line, on 7 of 16 from the floor and 1 of 5 from three. The guy he was covering most of the game, Andre Iguodala, matched those 22 points, on better shooting – 9 for 15, 3 of 6 from three. Most telling was how the Raptors defended the Warriors’ final play out of the time-out. They had Kawhi, former Defensive Player of the Year, covering the in-bounder. That said, check out his excellent blockout of Cousins, who otherwise would have a clear shot at the rebound.
- Danny Green had another sub-par game, not scoring a point, and throwing a pass that, had the Raptors lost Game Six, could have been remembered in Toronto the way Red Sox fans remember Bill Buckner and then Game Seven. Nonetheless, I still hope to get the Red Green jersey for Father’s Day.
- As mentioned above, Iguodala had a trio of three pointers. Remarkably, the same number of three-pointers as the best shooter in history, Steph Curry. With Kawhi’s 22 points matched on his own team by undrafted VanVleet, this was not a game in which the two teams’ best players rose to the occasion.
- Thankfully for Toronto, the other guys did. Lowry, Siakam, Ibaka and VanVleet all had excellent games. In any championship, players other than the stars need to play well. Think back to the 2014 Spurs – Patty Mills, Boris Diaw, DannyGreen!, Cory Joseph and Tiago Splitter all contributed. So while teams continue to try to build around superstars (see e.g. the Lakers), one should note that the present champs won with their lone superstar having a sub-par game, as the rest of the team stepped up to bring the ring home.