For the first time in their 25-year franchise history, the Toronto Raptors are heading to the NBA Finals. And for the first time in NBA history, a Canadian team will be represented in the NBA Finals.
A possibility that has been far from reality in the 24 seasons prior. This is all due to the genius of General Manager Masai Ujiri making a mid-season trade for Marc Gasol, and of course the blockbuster trade for Kawhi Leonard. Ujiri risked a stable future for a lone season with high championship aspirations.
A risk that has paid off.
The biggest challenge of the season has finally presented itself to the Raptors. The star-studded starting lineup of Green, Cousins, Thompson, Curry, and Durant has been the most talent Toronto has faced all postseason. Here is how the Raptors can bring a championship up north:
Sweeping the Regular Season Series
It is only fitting that the Golden State Warriors face the only team to have swept them during the regular season in the Toronto Raptors. Although early in the season, the Raptors were able to win in a tight overtime game on their home floor, albeit without Stephen Curry and Demarcus Cousins active.
The second game the Raptors defeated the Warriors at Oracle by 20 points without Kawhi Leonard. Although many will say that the playoffs are a different animal with a different environment, the Raptors legitimately know how to beat the Warriors both in close games and in landslide victories.
Depth in Defensive Diversity
The Toronto Raptors have been lead by the superstar effort from Kawhi Leonard. His impact on the offensive end has been needed night in and night out for this Raptors squad. But the spark that makes this team a championship threat is its defensive versatility as a team.
Just watching both the 76ers and Bucks series, Toronto was able to neutralize Philly and Milwaukee’s threats. Most notably, Gasol and Ibaka were instrumental in containing the big men of the 76ers, while VanVleet and Powell were pivotal in stopping the guards of Milwaukee.
The Warriors however present a new challenge for Toronto. An offensive system that runs like a well-oiled machine, designed to play with fast-pace and outside-in has been a first for Toronto this post-season.
But if there is a team defensively adaptable to handle Golden State, it is the Toronto Raptors. Expect Kawhi to be assigned to Klay and Curry and even KD if his return is sooner rather than later.
An interesting strategy Nurse employed was assigning the young, long, and quick Pascal Siakam on Stephen Curry to chase around screens, disrupt, and contest Curry’s offensive opportunities. Don’t be surprised if we see some unorthodox defensive schemes from the Raptors this series.
Veteran Leadership and Experience.
This Raptors team has seemed to shed themselves of past playoff demons and rose from ashes of their past failures. But let’s not act like this squad has been the same squad five years ago. A number of changes have been made to the roster and most have proven to be the right decision personnel wise.
The addition of Kawhi Leonard not only buffed up the team in-terms of talent, but also in terms of leadership. The same can be said about new veterans such as Danny Green and Marc Gasol. One of which, Green winning a championship in San Antonio and Gasol making deep playoff runs in Memphis.
The make-up of this team has changed not only in terms of style of play and philosophy, but also in the chemistry within the roster. Having player who have that championship DNA can go a long way come playoff time, and this team has showed it time and time again.
The Kawhi Effect
There is no other way to put it. This current season has been by far the greatest season in Toronto Raptors history.
A franchise that can make a complete 180 turnaround starting next season has a chance to win the NBA championship in 2 weeks time. With the future of Kawhi Leonard uncertain, the Raptors are desperate to capitalize on the opportunity to capture their first title in franchise history and to be the first Canadian team to win an NBA championship. The possibility, although unlikely, is not so impossible after all.