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The Raptors’ Championship Doesn’t Deserve An Asterisk

OAKLAND, Calif. — Even as the Raptors celebrate their first NBA championship in franchise history, there will undoubtedly be naysayers downplaying the win because of the circumstances surrounding the victory.

Golden State star Kevin Durant missed the first four games of the series with a right calf injury and tore his Achilles when he returned for Game 5 after his team fell behind 3-1. And with the Warriors in a solid rhythm and vying to knot things at three games apiece in Game 6 Thursday, Klay Thompson’s left knee buckled as he landed following a dunk attempt; the injury would later be revealed to be a torn ACL.

No one in their right mind would ignore the reality of those brutal injuries, or the effect they had on what could have been an even more competitive series. But focusing too much on those issues arguably takes away from something that became clear about Toronto this season: The Raptors regularly took — and more often than not, capitalized on — calculated risks all year long. Those wise gambles played a key role in their success, both in the finals and leading up to it.

Pay close attention, and you’ll notice that Toronto coach Nick Nurse experiments with several things1 just enough to engineer an advantage for his team. He illustrated a willingness to try, more than once, some rare defenses that are seen more often at the middle-school level than in the NBA. The 51-year-old, who had coached almost everywhere before this, found success toward the end of Game 2 when he sent his team out to contain Stephen Curry with a box-and-one after Thompson went down that night. Using that look — and holding Curry scoreless with it in Game 2 — helped the Raptors feel comfortable tightening the screws on Curry with the same defensive scheme in Game 6, after Thompson was forced to exit again.

Beyond that, Nurse opted to tweak his second-half starting lineup in Game 3 to include Fred VanVleet over Danny Green, even though Green had hit three triples in the first half. He stuck with that third-period shift the rest of the series, feeling that VanVleet’s ball-handling and stingy perimeter D on Curry were useful to begin the half.

By now, we all know the first two changes the Raptors made, dating back to last summer. Team president Masai Ujiri jettisoned Dwane Casey, who would go on to win Coach of the Year, to replace him with Nurse, who had never been an NBA head coach. And the executive would later deal away Toronto’s all-time leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan, sending him to the Spurs to get Kawhi Leonard — a move that seems obvious in hindsight but also carried at least some risk, given Leonard’s quad issues and his unwillingness to commit to Toronto once his deal was up at the end of this season. (Also noteworthy: The Raps didn’t toss someone like Pascal Siakam, who later blossomed into one of the NBA’s most valuable players from a contract standpoint, into the deal to acquire Kawhi. Again, a highly calculated move.)

Since then, the 27-year-old Leonard has rewarded Ujiri’s gamble by putting himself firmly in the conversation for best player in the world. Kawhi dominated long stretches of the conference semifinal series against the Sixers, then changed the complexion of the conference finals matchup with Milwaukee by taking defensive responsibility for likely league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. He moved on to Antetokounmpo for Games 3-6, and Toronto won all four of those contests to reach the finals. All told, Leonard finished with 732 points throughout the playoffs, the third most ever in one postseason — after LeBron James (748) in 2018 and Michael Jordan (759) in 1992.

There’s also something to be said for the Raptors’ split-second decision-making on the court. They were the NBA’s most efficient team in transition, and they bludgeoned the turnover-prone Warriors with that ability in Game 1. (Golden State claimed to not know what to expect that night because of how long it had been since they’d played one another.) Toronto entered the postseason as the league’s best defense at recovering loose balls, and Kawhi made a living in the series off of traveling great distances to come up with momentum-shifting offensive boards.

All those sorts of plays require a robot-like calculation of whether the risk is worth taking, but it generally felt as if Toronto — a long, deep club of high-IQ players — won those battles against the two-time defending champs. (There was one play where the Raptors’ bet didn’t pay off, and it tied the series.)

For all the dice-rolling the Raptors did this season — we haven’t even mentioned the Marc Gasol trade, for instance — they took seemingly no risks with Leonard’s health and load management. Thursday had to have been incredibly sweet for Kawhi, given that he earned the title on the exact same floor where, just over two years ago, he suffered an ankle injury on a controversial play that almost immediately derailed his team’s chances of competing for a title.

The Raptors were still incredibly fortunate in plenty of ways throughout this run. The absences of Durant and Thompson, for instance, allowed Nurse to deploy those aggressive zone hybrids on Curry, knowing that no other scoring threat would be able to take advantage. We wrote about the abundance of fortunate bounces on the rim the Raptors got during the playoffs, and Kyle Lowry — who was dominant Thursday — scored a key basket late that seemed to fit that profile.

And years from now, we still may not have any explanation for what VanVleet did over these final four weeks of the postseason. We already mentioned that he defended Curry admirably, but he essentially became a different player altogether during the second half of the playoffs, killing opposing defenses with his long-range triples and devastating late-clock offense.

Exactly two years ago today, we wrote a story that tried to imagine what a team that could beat the Warriors would look like. In it, we laid out what we believed to be the key factors: a club that could either beat or slow down Golden State in transition, a team with a lot of length and versatility, and a club that could shoot. With all of that in mind, we mentioned San Antonio, which still had Leonard at the time; a budding Milwaukee club; Boston; and Utah. (We weren’t as high on Cleveland because of the Cavs’ horrendous defense.) One team we didn’t even bother mentioning at the time was the Raptors, who had fared worse against the Warriors in the regular season over a three-year span than any other NBA club, in terms of minutes spent leading Golden State.

But what that goes to show you is how aggressive Ujiri was in his overhaul of Toronto, not just acquiring Leonard’s otherworldly talent but also using Nurse’s ideas, Siakam’s length and Gasol’s floor spacing and defensive IQ.

So, no: The Warriors weren’t at full strength for these NBA Finals. But if you think Toronto became a champion — and won 17 of the 24 quarters in this series — solely because of that, you’re selling the club short. The Raptors have been gambling for a long time now, and their ability to place bets at just the right time is a huge part of the reason they’ll be hosting a parade in the coming days.

Footnotes

  1. Like having his point guards dribble the ball to the middle of the floor, as opposed to over to a sideline, before calling a timeout. While this might fly under the radar for just about everyone, Warriors coach Steve Kerr picked up on it, and, after asking around, learned that doing so allowed a team to then select which side of the floor they wanted to inbound the ball from following the break.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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