OAKLAND, Calif. — Twice in their short time together, Masai Ujiri and Kawhi Leonard felt the need to bond with an embrace. The first was last summer when they met, the gambling team president greeting the star forward with the wounded reputation. It was welcoming and friendly enough, but not much more meaningful than an obligatory bro hug.
Oh, but the second time? This came after the Toronto Raptors clinched their first title with a 114-110 win in Game 6 of The Finals against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. This squeeze was deep and rich and emotional. And tight. As they grabbed each other on the court, you couldn’t slide a piece of fallen confetti between them.
Their roles, along with their basketball lives, were instantly changed at that moment. Ujiri was now fully redeemed for making a risky trade, one that fortified a franchise and energized an entire country. And Leonard? He was now a champion and a Finals MVP once more, reputation restored.
Masai and Kawhi. The crowning achievement of the 2019 NBA champions began with names that rhymed and a relationship that happened right on time.
“It’s about the players and the coaches,” Ujiri said, deflecting credit. “It doesn’t matter what decisions we make. Once those are done, now we have to play. And these players played their butts off. And the ownership has to give us the opportunity. There are hundreds of moves that we made that could’ve been mistakes, and moves we made that we thank God we didn’t make. The ones we made, the players and the coaches made them work.”
Landing Leonard worth the risk
The Raptors accomplished the unexpected by taking advantage of a two-time defending champion that shattered in pieces before everyone’s stunned eyes. Two days after the Warriors lost superstar Kevin Durant with a torn Achilles, they were horrified again when Klay Thompson — who sent a chill through Toronto with 30 points through three quarters — landed awkwardly in the fourth Thursday and tore his left anterior cruciate ligament.
It was a one-two punch to the gut that the shortchanged Warriors couldn’t survive, though not by the lack of trying. Motivated by those key injuries and also the final game ever inside the 53-year-old arena, the Warriors scrapped until the final seconds. Not until Stephen Curry’s hopeful 3-pointer missed was the threat from Golden State was over.
Suddenly, the Raptors would breathe easy. Those three 3-pointers from backup guard Fred VanVleet in the fourth quarter were not in vain. The steady hand of Kyle Lowry (26 points, 10 assists, three steals) was not wasted. And the 26 points from Pascal Siakam proved that a youngster could indeed stay composed and produce in the moment of truth.
Game 6 ended the series, and while history might suggest the healthier team instead of the better team won this title, the Raptors did what champions do: They pounced on the opportunity and sealed the deal.
Most importantly, they put themselves in position for this to happen by doing what few others would.
Discouraged and irritated by the Raptors’ past playoff failures that followed successful regular seasons, Ujiri traded star guard and fan favorite DeMar Derozan for a then-devalued star (Leonard) who went rogue on the San Antonio Spurs.
Ujiri felt the need to apologize for acquiring Leonard after feedback in Toronto wasn’t totally supportive. Lowry was enraged by the trade of his close friend and wouldn’t speak to his own team president.
Imagine that now. Crazy, right?
Ujiri and Leonard were straightforward and frank in their initial discussions about their goal, their only goal.
“When I was there on my opening day meeting, I said I was focused on the now, and I wanted to make history here, and that’s what I did,” Leonard said. “I’m still playing basketball no matter what jersey I have on. I just came in with the right mindset: Let’s go out and win games. I texted Kyle the day later and said let’s go out and do something special, that I know your best friend left and I know you’re mad, but let’s make this thing work out. And here we are today.”
Leonard proved to be the singular star the Raptors needed to clear the final hurdle. He was a tornado through much of the playoffs, taking the big shots, excelling at both ends of the floor all while pushing the Raptors into a foreign month of the playoffs for them: June.
It doesn’t matter what anyone else has to say about me. That was my goal and my focus. I know who I am as a person.”
Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard
In The Finals, he remained a pain for the Warriors despite their constant double-teams. There he was slashing for baskets, stepping back for jumpers and floating on help on defense (mainly on Curry and Thompson). He averaged 28.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game in The Finals, clinching his second Finals MVP (to go with his 2014 trophy).
In NBA history, only one other offseason trade compares where a player arrived and instantly made this much of a ripple. In the summer of 1982, Moses Malone priced himself out of Houston, so the Rockets traded him to the Sixers. Philadelphia, at that point, was 0-4 in The Finals with Julius Erving leading the way.
Malone proved to be the missing piece as he won MVP and Finals MVP honors in 1982-83 as the Sixers swept the Los Angeles Lakers in The Finals. In 2007, the Lakers swung a mid-season deal for Pau Gasol to get help for Kobe Bryant. While they advanced to The Finals, L.A. didn’t win the NBA title until 2009.
The difference with Toronto is Leonard wasn’t blessed with teammates with Hall of Fame credentials as Erving and Bryant, and won anyway.
‘Bold decisions’ lead to trophy
The team built by Ujiri was strikingly lacking in top-shelf talent as no player was taken in the Draft lottery. Only Lowry, Leonard and Marc Gasol (who was acquired in at midseason) had All-Star backgrounds, and Lowry was inherited from the previous regime.
The Raptors are therefore one of the more unassuming champions, yet they put themselves here by going scorched Earth through the Eastern Conference playoffs and doing what was necessary against the Warriors.
Wayne Embry, a Raptors advisor and former long-time Cleveland Cavaliers executive, said few if any general managers would’ve pulled the trigger on the Leonard trade because of the circumstances surrounding his free agency.
“The thing that really impressed me about Masai was the willingness to make bold decisions,” Embry said. “Obviously it paid off. A lot of people worry about job security in those situations. This is a high-risk, high-reward situation that he took advantage of. I commend him and I also commend ownership for going along with it. So here we are, world champions.”
This time last summer, Leonard felt alienated and betrayed by the Spurs. He was hurt that the basketball world questioned the severity of his quad injury, which held him to nine games in 2017-18. The situation was compounded by his quiet nature as he refused to explain himself. That only fed public speculation about his health and motivation. He came to Toronto in a twisted state.
“Me just going through that, I just knew that I would have to make myself happy and no one else,” Leonard said. “I have to trust myself. It doesn’t matter what anyone else has to say about me. That was my goal and my focus. I know who I am as a person.
“Last summer was rough. I was going through a lot. I was still rehabbing. I told myself I would be back. I wasn’t going to come back until I could be the player I am today. I wanted to come back in the same shape and form without playing five games and re-injuring something. Just to be able to win this championship is something special for me, because you know how people were looking at me last year, and I stayed true to myself. I’m just happy my hard work paid off.”
There are hundreds of moves that we made that could’ve been mistakes, and moves we made that we thank God we didn’t make. The ones we made, the players and the coaches made them work.”
Raptors president Masai Ujiri
Helped by minutes and games restriction during the regular season, Leonard didn’t miss a playoff game. He averaged 34.1 minutes per game in the first round, 39.7 in the conference semifinals, 41.3 in the conference finals and 40.5 in The Finals.
“He’s unbelievably good,” Lowry said. “He’s been showing that all year. And he’s Finals MVP again.”
After falling behind 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals, the Raptors only lost twice again and took three straight at Oracle. At various points, they were lifted by Lowry — a point guard dogged by previous playoff failures — and Siakam, VanVleet and Serge Ibaka. A basketball team is the toast of a hockey nation.
“They always believed in themselves,” Ujiri said. “This the real world champions, right? That includes all around the world? Well, a team from Canada now represents that.”
The foundation was laid when Leonard requested a trade from the Spurs. Ujiri, with no assurances that Leonard would stay beyond this summer when he hits free agency, put his reputation and the future of his club on the line anyway. All for the sake of making history.
After six games of these Finals, we can finally reach a conclusion about that decision.
“It all worked out,” Leonard said. “We’re champions.”
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