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The Raptors’ Journey to the Top of the N.B.A.

TORONTO — The adventure in Toronto, as many triumphs do, started with failure.

Within the 2017-18 season, the Raptors received a franchise-record 59 video games, driving the backs of its stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. They’d a revered trainer, Dwane Casey, who guided the franchise to its 3rd instantly 50-win season, and a number of other promising younger avid gamers. The finals loomed.

Aside from Toronto, as one broadcaster famous, as soon as once more was “LeBronto”: For the 3rd instantly yr, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers simply brushed the Raptors apart within the playoffs on tips on how to the finals. Would Toronto ever recover from the hump? Masai Ujiri, who has run Toronto’s basketball operations since 2013, didn’t assume so, resulting in a couple of the gutsiest league-paradigm-altering gambles taken through an N.B.A. government.

First, Ujiri fired Casey 4 days after he received the league’s Trainer of the Yr Award and sooner or later increased Nick Nurse to exchange him. However that was once not anything when put next with what got here subsequent: Ujiri stunned observers through buying and selling DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round draft pick out to the San Antonio Spurs for the disgruntled celebrity Kawhi Leonard (who had just one yr left on his deal), the sharpshooter Danny Inexperienced and money. In some way, the money was once the surest a part of the deal.

We disregard now: When Ujiri made the business for Leonard, there was once important fear amongst Toronto lovers and different basketball watchers, despite Leonard’s championship pedigree (and Inexperienced’s, for that topic).

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All this is a surprising development in hindsight: Leonard’s season before arriving in Toronto was full of spectacle, even as he stayed quiet about a conflict with the Spurs about whether an injury had been misdiagnosed.

And even stranger, we still don’t really know what happened. There were rumors, cryptic statements, seeming bafflement and frustration publicly from San Antonio — but only characteristic silence from Leonard.

Clearly, there had been a breakdown of communication between San Antonio and Leonard, even though they won a title together in 2014. This may have been more important than anyone in San Antonio ever realized until it was too late. Dennis Robertson, Leonard’s uncle, also known as Uncle Dennis in N.B.A. circles, said as much in an interview published by Yahoo during this year’s postseason: “They didn’t believe Kawhi couldn’t play and that caused a lack of trust in us and then us not believing in them,” Robertson told Yahoo. “Anytime a player says he’s not capable of playing, you should believe him.”

But one team’s divorce is another one’s gain. Leonard jumped forward, carrying an entire country to its first professional basketball championship.

There was uncertainty about Leonard’s health after the trade. But the Raptors went to great lengths to manage Leonard’s workload in the regular season to keep him fresh for the playoffs. He played only 60 of 82 games, never playing back to back, and averaged 34 minutes, while putting up the best numbers of his career. Put in practice by Alex McKechnie, the Raptors’ director of sports science, this was commonly referred to as “load management,” and the results will most likely shift how other franchises treat their best players going forward.

Toronto was steady all season, with or without Leonard on the court.

The Raptors burst out of the gate winning 12 of their first 13 games, including double-digit wins against the Celtics, Lakers and 76ers. They had only one three-game losing streak during the entire season, which netted 58 wins, only one off their franchise record set the year before. Several players, like Pascal Siakam (a leading contender for most improved player), emerged to help Leonard with a more direct form of load management. Green, considered a side dish rather than the main course in the trade, also made key contributions, including a buzzer-beating game-winner against the Orlando Magic early in the season.

In September, at his introductory news conference as a Toronto Raptor, Leonard was asked by a reporter what he wanted fans to know about him.

He paused for a split-second, then spoke while remaining expressionless.

“I’m a fun guy. Obviously, I love the game of basketball,” Leonard deadpanned. “I mean, there’s just more questions you’ll have to ask me in order for me to tell you about myself. I just can’t give you a whole spiel.”

And then came the laugh, a snicker that would enter the annals of N.B.A. history as one of the most awkward moments ever witnessed at a basketball event. Leonard gave the chuckle of someone who had misread an instruction manual on how to do it. The sound and the accompanying facial expression (or lack thereof) instantly became a viral meme, reinforcing a long-held notion that Leonard lacked a personality.

That he would make gentle of himself would possibly appear out of persona. But when Leonard re-signs with Toronto, the ones moments point out that he was once extra at ease north of the border than first of all predicted.

To additional display their dedication to profitable, the Raptors swung for the fences once more in February, buying and selling as soon as key items of Toronto’s core like guard Delon Wright and Jonas Valanciunas for a former defensive participant of the yr, Marc Gasol.

It was once some other possibility: Wright and Valanciunas have been younger, productive abilities coming into their primes. They have been inexpensive than the 34-year-old Gasol, who was once having an underwhelming season with the Memphis Grizzlies.

However Ujiri was once striking his chips at the desk to reinforce Leonard in a bid to win at this time. Learn in a different way, Ujiri confirmed Leonard that Toronto was once dedicated to him. (The signing of Jeremy Lin, additionally in February, who was once having a very good season with the Atlanta Hawks, didn’t relatively determine.)

However that didn’t imply the Raptors didn’t have outdated demons to defeat. They misplaced their first playoff recreation towards a plucky Magic group. Lowry didn’t ranking a unmarried level, rekindling an overblown narrative that he wasn’t a playoff performer. However this time, the Raptors had Leonard. Lowry bounced again, and Toronto didn’t lose some other recreation within the collection. Leonard led the group in scoring 4 of the 5 video games.

In the second one around, Toronto confronted Philadelphia in what’s going to move down as one of the most strangest, maximum mentioned playoff collection in basketball historical past.

4 of the seven video games have been determined through double-digits. In two of the contests, neither group cracked 100 issues, a throwback to an older, now-seemingly defunct taste of basketball. However after six video games of exchanging frame blows, the collection went to Scotiabank Enviornment for Recreation 7. Within the ultimate seconds, Leonard rose up from the right baseline and rimmed in what immediately became the most important jumper in Canada history. The shot caused Philadelphia’s star center, Joel Embiid, to weep, as the Sixers were sent home in devastating fashion, 92-90. Even the typically reserved Leonard let out a scream.

The Raptors lost the first two games of their next series on the road against the Bucks, who had the higher seed. Game 2 was a blowout. It seemed as though Toronto had no answer for the likely most valuable player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the 2019 Raptors did have one: Leonard.

In Game 3, a double-overtime thriller, he played a whopping 52 minutes to rescue his team from going down, 3-0, dropping 36 points. Toronto reeled off four straight, shocking Milwaukee. Leonard, looking fatigued, scored 27 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in the clincher.

Now, the Raptors are immortalized, and Ujiri’s gamble has officially paid off. With Leonard at the helm on the court, these Raptors were daunted by nothing: whether it was Antetokounmpo or the Warriors’ talent glut. It has been a perfect match: Leonard was a stabilizing influence for an anxious Raptors team reeling from the results of recent years. He was exactly who they needed.


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