The Six, in Six

AP Photo/Tony Avelar

It all seemed so futile, right up until it didn’t. When the Golden State Warriors signed DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year, well-below-market value contract in the summer of 2018, it was as if the embarrassment of riches had itself become embarrassed. It is nice to have nice things; it is rude to flaunt those nice things so rabidly that the idea of not having any of it becomes offensive.

When Kawhi Leonard, the Board Man, decided it was his time to fell another dynastic squad, however, there was little that Golden State could do about it. Through an unreplicable series of transactions, the Toronto Raptors were able to beat the Warriors at their own game. On Thursday night, in the final NBA game ever at Oracle Arena, the Raptors became the world champions, bringing a title to the homeland of the sport’s inventor.

First, credit where credit’s due: the Warriors have truly revolutionized and, to some extent, optimized the game of basketball as it stands in 2019. They have won three of the past five NBA titles and expect to remain contenders for the foreseeable future, despite present circumstances.

To that end: after five years and over six seasons’ worth of games, the Warriors could not hold up any longer. DeMarcus Cousins rushed back from his injury when a depleted Golden State team needed him; aside from Games 2 and 6, he was mostly unplayable on defense. Kevin Durant, who missed the first four games of the series with a calf injury, returned in Game 5 and went super-Willis Reed in the first quarter…only to rupture his Achilles, rendering him unable to play for the next several months.

Klay Thompson, long the Warriors’ iron man in terms of health and resilience, fell awkwardly on a dunk attempt in the third quarter of Game 6, making it halfway to the locker room only to return and hit his free throws[1]. Afterward, it turned out he had suffered a torn ACL, rendering him unable to play for the next several months. He was still the leading scorer across both teams in Game 6, with 30 points.

Long a man of supreme relaxation, at least when he wasn’t in the midst of chastising Draymond Green, Steve Kerr took on a countenance of relief more than disappointment after Steph Curry missed what would have been a go-ahead three-pointer with eight seconds remaining and the Raptors up 111-110. His own injury issues aside, Kerr has been present for the entirety of this run, too, never seeming to take anything for granted.

Green himself was sublime when it mattered most, posting a triple-double in Game 6. Andre Iguodala had 22 points, the most he scored in a game throughout the playoffs and the highest-scoring game he has had since Christmas Day. Cousins pitched in a serviceable 12 and 5, but serviceable was never going to be enough with so many holes in the lineup.

So, the North. The Raptors took every slight and raw feeling from their recent run of success, in which they more than once ran into LeBron James unsuccessfully, and stuffed it in the garbage disposal. Losing every playoff series Game 1? Not anymore. Being referred to as “the Drakes?” A compliment, given they have matching success. Kyle Lowry, a Houston Rockets castoff who bloomed into a five-time All-Star and turned the playoff no-show into an art form, saved arguably his best playoff game of the year for the last.

Pascal Siakam’s great leap forward spurred this run as well; he averaged 18 points and seven rebounds per game in these playoffs, and went for a little shy of 20 points, seven rebounds and four assists in the Finals. His defense was borderline-immaculate, and at 25 years old, it is best to expect that we have not yet seen a fully-actualized Spicy P.

But then again,

Courtesy ESPN

Of course, the Raptors are not here without Kawhi Leonard, whose complete domination of the series, and the playoffs as a whole, puts him in the extremely rare air of the finest postseason performers in any sport, ever. His shot to sink the Sixers in the second round was an instant classic, the first of its kind and the defining, non-Finals image we will remember from this run, no matter where Kawhi goes next[2]. It would have been worth the price of admission for Leonard to sink that shot, giving Raptors fans their own, singular moment of glory independently of Vince Carter dunks and expurgating Andrea Bargnani.

That general manager Masai Ujiri traded a franchise icon in DeMar DeRozan for Leonard, coming off an injury and uncertain to remain in Toronto beyond this season, as well as fellow ex-Spur Danny Green, was risky. To a more incidental extent, Mike Conley was also sacrificed for this. Leaping at the chance to trade for Marc Gasol was smart but not especially revolutionary; any GM of a contender would have leapt at the chance for Gasol at the price for which the Raptors got him. In hindsight, these moves are no-brainers. A championship does that for you[3].

Here are some other people who are now NBA champions:

  • Serge Ibaka
  • Jeremy Lin[4]
  • Norm Powell
  • Jodie Meeks
  • OG Anunoby

Patrick McCaw, who spent the first two years of his career with the Warriors before holding out on re-signing with them, getting cut and landing with these very Raptors, is 3-3 in championships. Leonard and Green, of course, already had a title from 2014 with the Spurs, and Leonard added to his Finals MVP from that year with one for this series.

Fred VanVleet deserves special consideration, as well, for his defense on Steph Curry, for losing a tooth and not caring about it, for improving statistically only after literally becoming a father and for the fact that he now holds the Finals record for three-pointers off the bench. Courtesy of basketball-reference.com, let’s take a look at whom he ripped that crown from, shall we?

It’s always tough to parse out what a championship means, not least of all because of the open-endedness of that particular canvas. Legacies are constantly on the line in the late-period #RINGZ culture, and even winning a title does not necessarily ensure a desired place in history.

On a recent Lowe Post podcast, Eric Koreen of The Athletic and Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star spoke of what it might represent to Raptors fans if the team won a championship. They touched upon how it has historically been a twofold sense of otherness to follow the team – that to be a basketball fan in Canada brings mocking from everyone below the border and intensified scrutiny from fellow countrypeople who ingest hockey as a primary course.

This Raptors team, however oddly constructed, validated everything for everyone involved. This is a team of cast-offs and misfits as much as it is one of All-Stars past and present. There is no blueprint for their success in the current NBA. There is only this team.

James Naismith, a Canadian from a town 370 km northeast of Toronto, invented basketball in 1891. Over a century and a quarter later, his home country has the most important bragging rights in the game. However uncertain the immediate future is for the Raptors, they brought a country together, ripping a subculture out of the underground and thrusting it into the spotlight. They, the North, have earned this moment.

*     *     *

[1] Had another player taken Thompson’s free throws on his behalf, Thompson would not have been allowed to return to the game later.

[2] Leonard is an unrestricted free agent this summer.

[3] Ujiri also almost traded Lowry to the Knicks for Iman Shumpert in 2013, with New York backing out in the eleventh hour. Every championship team benefits from strokes of luck, more often than not at the expense of the New York Knicks.

[4] This one’s for #Linsanity.

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