OAKLAND, Calif.—Before the first NBA team outside the U.S. ever played a game, the new franchise in Toronto needed a name. The owners asked the entire nation of Canada for ideas. Some were good. Some were bad. Some were terrible. And one was the Raptors. It was 1994. “Jurassic Park” was big. That was reason enough for this basketball team to be named after dinosaurs.
Now the Toronto Raptors can be called something else: NBA champions.
The Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors, 114-110, in Game 6 of the Finals on Thursday to win the series, 4-2, with a commanding performance on the road in Oracle Arena’s last game to dethrone the league’s reigning dynasty and win the Raptors’ first title.
To hear “Toronto Raptors” and “NBA champions” in the same breath would’ve sounded like a hallucination to most fans for most of the franchise’s existence. This is the same team that once played in purple dinosaur uniforms. They couldn’t keep star players and couldn’t attract free agents. Toronto was too cold, too Canadian, too much unlike any other team in the league to compete at this level.
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But now they have to declare the Larry O’Brien trophy at customs because of someone who has always been different himself.
There is no one in the NBA like Kawhi Leonard. He is quieter than every other player. He is also better. And he just put together one of the greatest playoff runs in the history of the league.
And it wasn’t just him. Game 6 was not only a classic but a fittingly insane sendoff to this arena. There were about 47 minutes of pandemonium that came down to one final minutes of madness. The final shot was the one that everyone in the Bay Area would’ve begged for: a Stephen Curry 3-pointer for the win. He missed. The Warriors called a timeout that they didn’t have. And the Raptors won the championship.
Maybe the most insane part about it was who hit the biggest shots for the Raptors: Fred VanVleet. An undrafted guard who is generously listed at 6-feet tall, VanVleet scored 16 points in the second half. All of them were necessary for the Raptors to win a title.
Toronto’s season that ended in confetti began nearly a year ago in a hotel room in Kenya. That’s where Raptors president Masai Ujiri pulled the trigger on the trade that would change the future of his franchise.
His team was coming off the two winningest seasons in its history, but the Raptors kept crashing into a ceiling with an odd resemblance to LeBron James, and their city had become known by another name: LeBronto. Ujiri needed to make drastic changes. He’d already fired the league’s reigning coach of the year and hired Nick Nurse. Now it was time for him to get rid of the face of the franchise. By trading DeMar DeRozan for Leonard, the Raptors gambled on getting an even better player, and maybe even the best player in the world.
It would be the most successful bet they ever made.
But first they had to make another one. Leonard was coming off a mysterious injury that sidelined him for most of last season, and nobody seemed to know what kind of player he would be when he returned. As if that weren’t enough uncertainty, Leonard was also in the last year of his contract, meaning the Raptors might not have enough time to find out.
That was plenty of incentive for them to prioritize Leonard’s health above everything. They needed to do everything in their power to make sure he peaked in the playoffs.
Under the care of Alex McKechnie, a Scottish sports scientist with a shock of white hair, the Raptors crafted a radical plan for their star player: They played him less. He only played in 60 games and didn’t play on consecutive days all season. But it worked. By pacing him in the regular season, they positioned him to be incredible in the postseason.
He was. But he also needed to be.
The Raptors were down 1-0 to the Orlando Magic in the first round and 2-1 to the 76ers the next round in front of a crowd of polite, exceedingly civil Philadelphians. They required a buzzer-beating shot from Leonard to bounce four times to win Game 7 of that series, and their reward was a matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the NBA’s best record and likely Most Valuable Player. This time they were down 2-0 before ripping off four straight wins to get to the Finals.
And then the Raptors had to play the Warriors.
NBA teams tend to live unhappily ever after once that happens. The Warriors were chasing a three-peat and their fourth title in five years. They were two more wins away from a place among the game’s all-time great dynasties.
By the time they crossed the border, though, they were no longer capable of their particular brand of basketball terror. Durant missed four games with a calf injury and then ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5—a devastating injury that cast a pall on the series and changed the complexity of the entire league. Klay Thompson was out for Game 3 with a bum hamstring. Not even Curry was transcendent enough to carry a team by himself.
It slowly became clear over the course of the series that the Raptors were simply better than a team making its bid to be one of the best ever. Why? Because they had a dynasty stopper in Kawhi Leonard. He was the MVP of the Finals in 2014, when he spoiled LeBron James and the Miami Heat’s quest for a three-peat, and he became the Finals MVP again by ruining the Warriors.
This was Ujiri’s vision. He urged Toronto to believe in itself at the beginning of the season, and he repeated that message after the Raptors won the Eastern Conference and what seemed like the misfortune of playing the Warriors.
“We came all this way to compete, and we want to win in Toronto,” Ujiri said. “And we will win in Toronto.”
Ujiri was right about so much this season. But he was wrong about that final prediction: They won in Oakland. And now the Raptors really are the NBA champions.