'The Six' finally comes to the fore: Kawhi and the Raptors set to face the Warriors in the NBA Finals after humbling the Bucks
With 3.9 seconds left on the clock, Toronto had their best player on the line to make two crucial free throws which would finally push them over the line and help them make it to their first ever NBA Finals.
Kawhi Leonard maintained his composure as he had done throughout the series and knocked down both free throws to beat the Milwaukee Bucks and send an already ecstatic Scotiabank arena into a frenzy. Kyle Lowry's expressions post those crucial free throws showed the world what it meant to a team who have been counted out time and again and a nation that has been craving for its favorite team to make it all the way.
Kawhi is Toronto's star attraction, have no doubts about that. But Lowry is the heart of this team and represents the city to the tee as he has been through the toughest of times and still stuck with the franchise despite being an All-Star and having his pick of teams when he was a free agent just two years ago.
Toronto has seen stars such as Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh come and go while also going through tough periods where they have seen other teams and players such as LeBron James dominate them. Seeing their team go through to the finals is indeed a sight to behold for these fans and much deserved as they stuck with them through the worst times.
Superfans like Drake embody the culture which the team was built on as he sprinted up and down the line with the occasional antics to rile up the opponent, showing the passion and love the city has for their team and the desire to put them on the map. The 'Six' as Toronto has been famously called due to their 416 area code, has finally taken center stage and to quote lyrics from a Drake song "Started from the bottom, now we're here, Started from the bottom, now my whole team here."
A huge chunk of credit has to go to General Manager Masai Ujiri and his uncanny ability to gain the most out of what might seem like a risk initially. Trading a franchise player and fan favorite in DeMar DeRozan comes with a high risk that could usually see GMs lose their jobs if things do not pan out well. In Masai Ujiri's case, it ended up being a risk which came with a valuable reward as Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green helped provide the Raptors with the necessary firepower they needed to push them over the line and into contention.
Kawhi hitting free agency in 2019 added to the risk factor as the feeling was that he might end up leaving Toronto for a bigger market or a better team which made this quintessential for the Raptors to do all that is necessary to convince him to stay and buy into their vision.
Trading for Marc Gasol before the trade deadline was one such move which convinced teams around the league and fans that the Raptors were all in this time around and a force to be reckoned with. Gasol, a three-time All-Star, provided the Raptors with an upgrade over Jonas Valanciunas who they traded him for. Gasol's addition despite his age and the reemergence of the Bench MOB (a word used to describe Toronto's successful bench during the 2017-18 season) helped provide Kawhi and Kyle Lowry the necessary ammunition to guide the team to and through the playoffs.
Another risk which panned out for Masai was the hiring assistant coach Nick Nurse to take over from head coach Dwane Casey, who was fired despite leading the Raptors to a franchise record of 59 wins during last season. LeBron's domination of the team which led to the tag 'LeBronto' was a key reason for the ouster of Casey who was a successful regular season coach but failed to guide his team through the playoffs.
Sources around the league took offense to this move as they felt that Casey was being used as a sacrificial lamb to cover the inadequacies of the front-office and their inability to surround DeRozan and Lowry with the right pieces around them.
Hiring Nick Nurse came with its fair share of criticism but soon turned to praise as the coach guided a team similar to that of previous teams to the Finals while beating powerhouses such as the 76ers and the Bucks in the process.
The Eastern Conference might have gotten easier without the presence of LeBron James but making it to the Finals and finishing second in a conference filled with emerging teams like the Nets and perennial giants like the Celtics is still a huge achievement for someone who is in his first head coaching job in the league.
The Raptors have faced adversity at countless junctures this season but managed to wade through the troubled waters and emerge as a team determined to succeed no matter the cost. The Philadelphia 76ers, who were considered the favorites to go through to the finals after the Bucks, tested their resolve. The Philly outfit pushed Toronto to seven games where the Raptors emerged victorious after a breath-taking final few seconds involving a heart-stopping buzzer beater from Kawhi which bounced multiple times on the rim before sinking in.
What came out of that series was a bruised Raptors team but, a one with their resolve intact and an added desire along with the confidence that they could take on the best and beat them irrespective of the condition they were in. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler are some of the best players in the league and they still could not get the job done.
Players such as Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell had vital games and helped the team which looked like two units through most parts unite into one juggernaut which had answered every time the 76ers posed questions. The Bench MOB had well and truly re-emerged during this game as they helped lead their team past one of the favorites in the East.
The Raptors then faced their biggest challenge and obstacle in the form of the Milwaukee Bucks and potential MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks were considered the favorites in this series as they came off an amazing regular season where they finished first in the Eastern Conference and later went on to dominate both the Detroit Pistons and the Boston Celtics in convincing fashion during the playoffs.
The Bucks were playing an exciting brand of basketball and were like a battering ram with the 'Greek Freak' running into the lane and finishing hard or kicking it out to elite shooters such as Khris Middleton or Brook Lopez for the open three. Their offense was a puzzle to solve for teams around the league as they had no answer and no way to shut them out completely.
In the first two games, the Bucks dominated the Raptors in the same manner and most people had them winning the series comfortably until a certain All-World player took over and helped his team rally around him to shut down the juggernaut.
Nick Nurse put Kawhi on Giannis and that changed the series as 'The Klaw' shut him down and proved yet again as to why he is regarded as the best two-way player in the game currently. He came up with big performances throughout the series despite sustaining an injury during game 3 which saw him hobble about in the game.
Kawhi was ably supported by players such as Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Marc Gasol as the Raptors inflicted four straight defeats on the Bucks, who had not lost three straight games during the regular season. Toronto's ability to defend along with their grit and determination stopped a Bucks offense which had proved devastating for so many other franchises. The Raptors found a way to rally behind their leader and pull off an upset which most people never saw coming during the start of the series.
After getting past the Eastern Conference favorites it is now time for the Raptors to face one of the best teams of all time in the form of the Golden State Warriors. Beating Milwaukee might be a big achievement but beating the Warriors is a whole different proposition as even the most minor slips can cost you dearly as experienced by the Portland Trail Blazers.
With the Warriors being without Kevin Durant and reverting to their old style of play which sees a lot of cutting and screening, it is indeed going to be exciting to see if the Raptors solve this puzzle and shut down an offense which has been dominating the league for five years.
What makes this series more interesting is the fact that this not only is a battle between two highly deserving and dominant teams but a battle between America and Canada as the latter seeks to bring home their first NBA championship. Get your popcorn ready as you will have a series full of Drake and Draymond antics, extremely high competition and mesmerizing basketball.