OAKLAND, Calif. — The more the Toronto Raptors were around Kawhi Leonard this season, the more they took on his personality.
By time the playoffs arrived, the Raptors were all business — resolute, relentless, resilient with a stone-faced calm. Never rattled, not even on the road against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
"His demeanor has kind of taken a big part of our team," Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. "And we have some guys that are fiery and feisty, but we all kind of just stay level-headed and never get too up, never get too down."
That even-keeled persona, led by Leonard’s consistently wonderful effort, propelled the Raptors to their first championship in the franchise’s 24-year history.
Toronto defeated Golden State 114-110 in Game 6 on Thursday, putting the exclamation mark on an unexpected championship.
It was a wild finish to a game that had 18 lead changes and nine ties.
Golden State had a chance to take the lead trailing 111-110 with 9.6 seconds left. Steph Curry missed a 3-point attempt and there was a mad scramble for the basketball. The Warriors called a timeout they didn’t have and were issued a technical foul.
Raptors guard Kyle Lowry had 26 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, Pascal Siakam had 26 points and 10 rebounds, and Leonard added 22 points.
It was a team effort. Fred VanVleet had 22 points and Serge Ibaka 15 off the bench.
Golden State simply ran out of bodies. Kevin Durant was out, and Klay Thompson — after scoring 30 points — missed the final 14 minutes, 22 seconds with a left knee injury.
But Toronto also earned and deserved this.
It is a championship for a city (the last major Toronto title belonged to the Blue Jays in 1993) and a country (basketball has enthralled a hockey-loving nation).
For the franchise and its fans, the titles softens the sting of disappointments — losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers three consecutive seasons in the playoffs, trading Vince Carter, watching Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh leave for other teams in free agency.
Through the season, the playoffs and the Finals, the Raptors just kept playing, possession after possession. That was illustrated in the second half on Thursday.
Curry (21 points), Andre Iguodala (22 points), Draymond Green (11 points, 19 rebounds, 13 assists) and Thompson couldn’t save the injury-riddled Warriors, who have played in five consecutive Finals and won championships in 2015, 2017 and 2018.
But there is no three-peat for Golden State, which played its final game at Oracle Arena before it moves into the Chase Center in San Francisco next season. The Warriors were stung by injuries, including Durant’s devastating ruptured Achilles sustained in Game 5, and the Raptors peaked at the right time of the season.
But championships aren’t without difficulty, and the Raptors had their defining moments, both large and small, in the postseason. For starters, they trailed in each round of the Eastern Conference playoffs — down 1-0 to Orlando, 2-1 to Philadelphia and 2-0 to Milwaukee.
"We have tried to do a conscious thought process of not really caring what the score of the series is," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. "We know that the games are really hard."
The Raptors needed a buzzer-beating shot from Leonard to beat the 76ers in the second round, then they won four straight against the Bucks to reach the Finals. And think about this: Down 2-0 to Milwaukee, the Raptors went two overtimes before beating the Bucks in Game 3. They were an overtime loss from a problematic 3-0 hole.
After Golden State made it a 1-1 series in the Finals, Nurse told his team all they needed to do was split the two games in Oakland.
"That's maybe not an insurmountable challenge to go out there and get one," Nurse said. "And Kawhi said, 'Expletive that. Let's go get them both.' "
The Raptors won all three games at Oracle, something that seemed unlikely at the start of the series.
As a franchise, they had never been to the Finals before. But specific players — Leonard, Green, Ibaka — had been here before, so as a team, they acted like they knew what to do. They walked off the court after Game 4 with a 3-1 lead and weren’t celebrating.
"You don't do anything in this league unless you win the trophy," Lowry said. "You can accomplish this or that, but at the end of the day we have certain goals and standards that we want to reach. I think that's the one thing that we have all kind of just like — our end goal would be a championship. And that's what we have been working for all year."
A year ago, this Raptors championship seemed unlikely. Team president Masai Ujiri had dismissed Dwane Casey and replaced him with Nurse, a coach with an outstanding basketball mind but getting his first opportunity as a head coach in the NBA.
Toronto’s fortune began to change when Ujiri traded DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Leonard. The Raptors were one of the better teams in the East all season, even when they sat Leonard to make sure he was 100% for a deep playoff run. Ujiri also traded depth to acquire Marc Gasol in February.
By the time the playoffs arrived, the Raptors had a team that could make it through the East.
But not many expected Toronto to finish off the Warriors in six games, including three victories in Oakland.
Along this playoff journey, the Raptors received timely and impressive performances from several players, not just Leonard.
Lowry had 23 points and nine assists in Game 3 of the Finals. Gasol had 20 points and seven rebounds in Game 1, and Ibaka had 20 points in Game 4. VanVleet couldn’t make a shot for anything during the early part of the playoffs, but after the birth of his son during the Milwaukee series, he shot 14-of-17 on 3-pointers over the course of three games and hounded Curry defensively in the Finals. Green had six 3-pointers in Game 3 of the Finals.
It was a team effort, led by a team-first player in Leonard.