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Before the 2018-19 season even began, fireworks were afoot in the form of offseason player movement.
The dominoes began to fall in the West quickly, with the Oklahoma City Thunder surprising many as All-Star swingman Paul George re-signed in free agency. Out in California, the defending-champion Golden State Warriors picked up former All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins for a low-priced deal.
The Los Angeles Lakers, meanwhile, made the splashiest move in the conference: signing LeBron James in free agency. The Spurs stayed in the mix as well, sending former Finals MVP-turned-disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors for their franchise icon, DeMar DeRozan. As for the Bucks, they picked up center Brook Lopez on a low-priced deal and made other moves to round out their team.
In addition, several coaching changes altered the shape oft he NBA that season. Toronto parted with reigning NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and promoted his assistant, Nick Nurse, to the lead spot. Milwaukee hired former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer in hopes of pushing young phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo and company to new heights. Both moves worked out as planned as Toronto and Milwaukee were among the class of the NBA all season long.
The regular season got underway and was not without its surprises. The Denver Nuggets captivated many with a 54-win season, the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and their first division title in nine seasons behind center and Kia MVP candidate Nikola Jokic. The Portland Trail Blazers took flight a bit as well, finishing No. 3 in the West ahead of the Thunder, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz (among others) thanks to another standout season from Damian Lillard.
In the Eastern Conference, both the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets were surprise playoff teams. Nets guard D’Angelo Russell enjoyed a career-best season and was named an All-Star as he powered the Nets to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. In Orlando, center Nikola Vucevic was also an All-Star and helped the Magic make the playoffs for the first time since their Dwight Howard days (2011-12).
The class of the Western Conference remained the Golden State Warriors, who rang up 57 wins behind its star trio of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. Cousins, still recovering from a ruptured left Achilles tendon, would not suit up until January and played until April 16, when a torn left quadriceps sidelined him in the playoffs. His injury was a sign of things to come for Golden State in the playoffs.
Milwaukee’s addition of Budenholzer, Lopez and others freed up some of the burden Antetokounmpo carried and he flourished in 2018-19. He was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month four times, led Milwaukee to a 60-22 season (its most wins since 1980-81) and became a household name en route to winning Kia MVP honors. That made him the first Bucks player to be named MVP since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did so in 1971, ’72 and ’74.
Leonard’s move to Toronto took the Raptors to another level despite them slipping from a franchise-record 59 wins in 2017-18 to 58 wins this season. Although he missed more than 20 games due to his injury from the 2017-18 season, Leonard delivered time and again for Toronto in the playoffs, including a game-winning buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the semifinals against Philadelphia. It was only fitting that Toronto and Milwaukee would meet in the Eastern Conference finals, pitting Leonard against Antetokounmpo in what became a classic series.
Milwaukee jumped out to a 2-0 series edge behind Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and others. But Leonard and the Raptors would not be denied as he averaged 29.3 points, 10 rebounds, 5.5 assists. 2.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game in Games 3-6 as Toronto stormed back to defeat the Bucks and reach their first NBA Finals.
Golden State dominated in the West playoffs, but injury issues cropped up that slowed it despite making it to The Finals. Durant suffered a right calf strain in the semifinals vs. Houston, missing that series and the West finals vs. Portland, too. He did return in Game 5 of The Finals, but was lost for the series after suffering an Achilles injury. Thompson suffered an injury in the series as well, tearing his ACL in Game 6 of the series. In addition, Cousins did play in The Finals, but was never quite his old self on the court.
Injuries cast a pall over The Finals, but Leonard was not about to be denied his place in history regardless of who was on the court. He led the way in The Finals (28.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.2 apg, 2.0 spg, 1.2 bpg) and deferred to Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Danny Green and the rest of Toronto’s supporting cast as the Raptors eliminated the Warriors in Game 6. For his efforts, Leonard was named Finals MVP, becoming one of three players in NBA lore to win the award with three different teams.
Eastern Conference first round
Milwaukee defeated Detroit (4-0)
Toronto defeated Orlando (4-1)
Boston defeated Indiana (4-0)
Philadelphia defeated Brooklyn (4-1)
Western Conference first round
Golden State defeated LA Clippers (4-2)
Denver defeated San Antonio (4-3)
Portland defeated Oklahoma City (4-1)
Houston defeated Utah (4-1)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Milwaukee defeated Boston (4-1)
Toronto defeated Philadelphia (4-3)
Western Conference semifinals
Golden State defeated Houston (4-2)
Portland defeated Denver (4-3)
Eastern Conference finals
Toronto defeated Milwaukee (4-2)
Western Conference finals
Golden State defeated Portland (4-0)
Toronto defeated Golden State (4-2)
Points — James Harden, Houston Rockets (36.1)
Assists — Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder (10.7)
Rebounds — Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons (15.6)
Steals — Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder (2.2)
Blocks — Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers (2.7)
FG% — Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (66.9)
FT% — Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks (92.8)
3PT% — Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets (47.4)
Kia Most Valuable Player — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Kia Rookie of the Year — Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Kia Defensive Player of the Year — Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Kia Most Improved Player — Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Kia Sixth Man of the Year — Lou Williams, LA Clippers
Coach of the Year — Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
All-Star Game MVP — LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Finals MVP — Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors