The Toronto Raptors, of all teams, are your new NBA champions, after pulling out a 114-110 win in Oakland in Thursday night’s Game 6. It wasn’t necessarily a series that will be remembered for its aesthetic beauty, but in the end the Raptors earned their first title with six games of incredibly suffocating defense, and by winning all three games played in Oracle Arena, historically one of the toughest road venues in the league. The Warriors, chopped to hell by one injury after another, nevertheless made the Raptors fight like hell for it, all the way to the final buzzer.
The Raptors jumped ahead early behind some absurdly hot first-quarter shooting from the perimeter. Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam combined to knock down six of seven three-point attempts in the opening quarter, staking the Raptors to an early nine-point lead. Meanwhile the Warriors turned the ball over six times in the quarter, including four by Draymond Green. The Raptors are a good shooting team and the Warriors can be a little loose with the ball, but both Toronto’s blazing start and Golden State’s sloppiness proved unsustainable, and as the game settled down the Warriors quickly dug their way back largely behind the scoring of Klay Thompson, who was superb.
Of course, Thompson was only superb for a little bit less than three quarters of action. His second-half knee injury further defanged a Golden State offense already missing Kevin Durant and operating with an injured Kevon Looney and a diminished DeMarcus Cousins. The Warriors were up three points when Klay was injured on a breakaway layup attempt; after he sank his free throws they had their largest lead of the game. Klay’s injury may not be why the Warriors lost, but it certainly obliterated the last of their already desperately thin margin for error.
But the Warriors still made it tough, and were hanging in there, down just four points at around the two minute mark, when Kyle Lowry salvaged a ragged Raptors offensive possession with a clutch fadeaway over Steph Curry, aided by an extremely fortuitous shooter’s bounce:
That was a moment when it started to seem very real, that the Raptors-the Toronto Raptors!-were the team not just benefiting from injury luck but creating enough luck of their own to knock out the unbeatable Warriors and win the championship. That surreal moment was soon followed by an all-too-familiar moment when it suddenly seemed very possible that the Raptors would Raptor the hell out of this thing and choke it away. Late in the fourth quarter, clinging to a one-point lead, with less than a full shot clock left in the game, the Raptors very nearly threw away the game on an incredibly dumb turnover by Danny Green, who is supposed to be one of the championship-tested veterans on this team:
The Warriors got the ball back with just under 10 seconds left on the clock, which is an eternity when they’ve got all their weapons, but is still plenty of time as long as they’ve got Steph Curry around to warp the defense or dump in a ridiculous 35-footer. And the Warriors drew up and ran a gorgeous after-timeout play, lobbing a pass to the weak-side corner and using a flare screen at the top of the key to get Curry a sliver of space against the insane, hounding, relentless defense of Fred VanVleet. But Steph’s reasonably open (for him) look clanged off the rim and over the outstretched hand of Cousins, and by the time anyone secured the rebound there wasn’t enough time for another quality try.
That miss effectively ended the series, but the game turned stupid for a final couple minutes. Draymond Green called a desperation timeout with 0.9 seconds left on the clock. The Warriors, having already used the last of their timeouts, were assessed a technical foul, and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard sank the freebie, putting the Raptors* up two points. The Raptors had to inbound the ball one final time, which they did by throwing an over-the-top pass to Leonard under the hoop. Instead of punching the ball into the rafters, Kawhi brought it down and attempted to score; Green gave a foul on the play, the referees declined to swallow their whistles, and then were forced to review the sequence to see if the foul had occurred before Kawhi took possession, and also before the clock ran out. Fans and viewers were treated to another pair of free throws, and the game ended on an anticlimactic and meaningless post-buzzer heave from the backcourt. The silliness of the game’s replay-befouled ending sort of felt right.
There were a lot of Raptors heroes in this series. Kawhi Leonard was of course dominant, but VanVleet’s defense on Curry was genuinely spectacular, perhaps the best we’ve ever seen against Curry across a playoff series. Siakam made a huge bucket down the stretch by beating Green straight-up, and appears to be headed for superstardom. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka split up the center duties and spaced the floor and protected the paint. And Kyle Lowry, fittingly, led the Raptors in points, assists, steals, and plus-minus in a masterful and clutch Game 6 performance.
The Raptors exorcised a lot of demons, and both proved and rewarded the wisdom of Masai Ujiri trading away franchise icon DeMar DeRozan for Leonard following last season’s playoff flameout. Free agency may throw their roster into chaos next month, as it will almost certainly do for the conquered Warriors, but that’s a small price to pay for toppling a dynasty, thwarting a three-peat, and winning the first title in franchise history.