• Cyrus Rogers

Toronto used grit and graft to make NBA Finals

The Toronto Raptors have made history and will feature in their first-ever NBA Finals. The fans and players alike have cried tears of joy as a whole nation and it’s biggest star, rapper Drake, got behind their team.

The road to the NBA Finals in the 2018-19 season has been one paved with perseverance, resilience, hard work and determination. There have been gambles and whole heaps of luck too, but they’ve created their own fortune and made history along the way.

Much has been and will continue to be written about the Raptors’ Nigerian President of Basketball operations Masai Ujiri and his decision-making in the offseason, leading into the beginning of this phenomenal campaign. Ujiri tossed both Dwane Casey, a much-respected coach who had just won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award, as well as DeMar DeRozan a beloved All-Star guard that Raptors fans had grown to adore. He didn’t feel that Casey and DeRozan had what it took to take the franchise to the next level, Ujiri called it a business decision.

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He then brought in Kawhi Leonard who had agitated for a move away from the San Antonio Spurs and who didn’t seem like he wanted to spend any time in the colder climate in Canada. Next, Ujiri employed one of Casey’s assistants Nick Nurse as the new Head Coach. It looked like a recipe for disaster. Instead it turned into a dish fit for the Kings of the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors had a stellar season, not as good as their 2017-18 campaign where they topped the Eastern Conference standings, but they ended with a record of 58 wins and only 24 losses. That was only one loss more than their previous season, their 2019 record was good enough for second place in the Eastern Conference and second best overall in the combined league. They finished with a better record than the Western Conference leading Golden State Warriors going into the NBA Playoffs.

The risk of only having Leonard for one season, as he goes into unrestricted free agency in the North American summer, might have put some people off going all-in on him. Not Ujiri and the team from ‘The North’. Kawhi Leonard’s record at the end of the regular-season showed he hadn’t lost any of his impressive skillset due to the long-standing injury that had kept him out of the Spurs team till his departure from Texas. In the 82-game season he lead the Raptors in scoring, averaging 26.6 points a game (ppg) and in steals with 1.8 steals a contest (spg). His end of season stat-line read 26.6ppg, 7.3 rebounds a game (rpg) and 3.3 assists per game (apg).

The postseason is where you earn your plaudits and Leonard and the Raptors have delivered. They took care of the Orlando Magic in five games, after having lost their first game at home. Then they took on the Philadelphia 76ers and they weathered the storm in a tempestuous seven game series, winning it on a miracle Leonard shot over Joel Embiid to beat the buzzer. The Eastern Conference Finals was the next stop and it was where the best of the Raptors came to the fore. Having lost the first two games of their best of seven series to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, they turned it around at home in Canada at the Scotiabank Arena. The Raps won four games on the bounce to clinch the series 4-2.

Leonard’s numbers in the playoffs skyrocketed as the team rallied around him. He has averaged 31.2ppg, 8.8rpg, and 1.6spg, leading the Raptors in all of those categories. He has been superb in the run to the Finals, a real juggernaut.

Much credit must go to the coaching staff and Nick Nurse as well, who all made the necessary adjustments when the team was under pressure. African stars Pascal Siakam from Cameroon and Serge Ibaka from the Republic of Congo have been central to all of the success the team has achieved. Siakam is having a season that could land him the Most Improved Player of the Year award; he is averaging 18.7ppg and 7.0rpg. Ibaka has rolled back the clock and delivered on both ends of the floor when he’s been needed, his numbers read 8.7ppg, 6.2rpg and 0.7 blocks per game. The other player to put his hands up to be counted has been Kyle Lowry a long-standing servant of the franchise who has come to the party in the playoffs, he is averaging 14.7ppg, 6.4apg and 1.2spg.

The Raptors will need everyone to perform to the best of their abilities as they face the Golden State Warriors who are aiming for a three-peat of championships. The Warriors have their own reasons for wanting this NBA title more badly than most, with many feeling this is the end of an era. Kevin Durant might be leaving Golden State at the end of the season and he misses Game 1 early on Friday morning. Durant’s absence will give the Canadian team some hope that they can pull off another shock result and give the defending champions the fight of their lives. For the Raptors, they will continue to scrap for every point and fight for every loose ball. They have built their team around effort and effort will get them over the line.

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