'The longest point-nine seconds': Superfan Nav Bhatia relieved by Raptors' historic win
After 26 years of far more fizzle than fizz, Canada’s championship drought is over. The Toronto Raptors, riding the magic of a generational star backed by a rookie coach and a tenacious supporting crew, topped the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors to claim the team’s first National Basketball Association title.
“This is what I play basketball for,” Kawhi Leonard told the sellout crowd in Oakland’s Oracle Arena after winning the Most Valuable Player Award, his second. A couple of thousand miles away, raucous supporters went into a frenzy on the streets of Toronto and in the Jurassic Park fan zone outside Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena.
By taking the NBA crown, the Raptors ended a stretch of more than two decades without a major championship for any Canadian team in North America’s biggest sports. That’s dating to the 1993 World Series win by the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team and the Stanley Cup hockey title won that same year by the Montreal Canadiens. (Though Toronto FC did win soccer’s MLS Cup in 2017.)
Here’s how the Raptors managed to bring the NBA crown to Canada for the first time:
The Super Star
Kawhi Leonard hasn’t been universally designated the world’s best basketball player. But he’s made a case for it this postseason, racking up a performance that puts him in the ranks of some all-time greats. In Game 4 of the Warriors series, Leonard joined the elite company of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Durant by becoming the fourth player to score more than 35 points while giving up zero turnovers in a Finals game. And Leonard’s 732 points this postseason puts him behind only Jordan at 759 or LeBron James’s 748 among the all-time best players.
Leonard’s status in the NBA was far from certain when the season began. The forward had missed most of the previous campaign with the San Antonio Spurs because of injury, and rumors were swirling about disquiet between the team and his handlers. In response, Leonard rose as a Raptor supernova with his remarkable athleticism, scoring versatility and dogged defense. And then there’s his famous mindset, which might be described as mind-blowing even-keeledness.
The Rookie Coach
Nick Nurse wasn’t the clear choice to lead the Raptors when the team fired Dwane Casey last May just before being named coach of the year. Sure, Nurse had been coaching for three decades, but never as an NBA skipper. Other candidates including former Atlanta Hawks and current Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer seemed more likely candidates.
Yet Nurse, 51, has always had a knack for winning, either at the U.S. college level, the minor leagues or in Europe. The Iowa native was named coach of the year in the G League and in the U.K. And in his five years as an assistant in Toronto running the offense with the Raptors, the team’s scoring strengthened, especially from three-point range. Under Nurse, the team also stepped up on defense. Nurse joins Golden State coach Steve Kerr in the select group of rookie coaches to win an NBA championship.
The Gutsy President
Masai Ujiri took a lot of heat from Raptors fans when he traded DeMar DeRozan last July in a deal for Leonard. With point guard Kyle Lowry, DeRozan had formed the heart and soul of the team through successive playoff runs and he was unabashed about his desire to stay in Toronto. DeRozan, a four-time all-star, was crushed by the move, saying on Twitter: “Be told one thing and the outcome another. Ain’t no loyalty in this game.’’
Adding to the risk for Ujiri, there was no guarantee Leonard would re-sign with the Raptors beyond one year. But after his stellar performance in the regular season and his Michael Jordan-esque run in the playoffs, there is little doubt the deal paid off. Adding Marc Gasol near the end of the season wasn’t a bad move either by the Nigerian executive.
The Back-up Band
While Leonard gets the lion’s share of attention, the other crown jewel in the Raptors golden band is Lowry. The five-time all-star has been a team linchpin — or, as Leonard put it last week, “our quarterback” -- impressing with his ever-present scrappiness and on-court audacity. He’s been aided by fellow guard Fred VanVleet, who hadn’t been living up to his “Steady Freddy” reputation in the playoffs until his partner had a baby on May 20. That sent the 6-foot point guard on a brilliant run, landing dagger threes and driving through packs of relative giants to score off the dribble.
Others also stepped up to fill periodic scoring deficiencies, including starting center Gasol, off-again-hot-again sharpshooter Danny Green and big man Serge Ibaka. But no one has broken out like rising star Pascal Siakam. Building on the gains he’s made all season, Siakam’s explosive style in Game 1 of the Finals pulled the team to victory and enriched his claim to be the league’s most-improved player.
The Rabid Fans
Toronto is supposed to be a hockey town. The Maple Leafs are the second-most valuable franchise in the National Hockey League and die-hard fans have been waiting for a title since 1967.
The Raptors are filling the championship void. Hundreds of fans have camped out before each Finals game to get access to the Jurassic Park fan zone in downtown Toronto. Satellite parks also sprung up in nearby Mississauga, and as far away as Halifax, Nova Scotia, to the east and Calgary to the west.
This has become Canada’s team, and increasingly, the country’s second sport. A record 13.4 million people tuned in to watch Game 5 in the series, more than a third of the country.
The support is translating to rising talent on the court. There are now 13 Canadians playing in the NBA, more than from any country other than the U.S. Toronto-area native R.J. Barrett, the Duke University star, is set to join the ranks next season. Fitting perhaps, for a game invented by Canadian James Naismith more than a century ago.
“This run has created more casual fans, which increases participation and then even more avid fans,” Brian Cooper, a former executive of Raptors parent Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, said on BNN Bloomberg TV. “This is a turning point for the sport in this country.”