VanVleet on Kawhi's free agency: "There's nothing more we can do. We've done it, the city's done it, this franchise has done it, the coaches have done it, his teammates have done it. We've done our job. I would assume he knows what is here and what makes this place special" pic.twitter.com/JtsoYQ7K34
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) June 16, 2019
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) June 16, 2019
Yigit is a basketball parent. As president and research director of Solutions Research Group in Toronto, he has also been studying how attitudes have been shifting around sports. The company has found that Canadians — especially young Canadians — have been following the game with increasing fervour.
“I would say steady, and steady with a kind of a hockey stick curve, as they say,” he said. “Maybe about five or six years ago, it sort of started kind of coalescing and becoming more than just bubbling under.”
Five years ago, the company found 28 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 34 followed the NBA on television or online. Last year, before the Raptors had even begun their run, that number had jumped to 40 per cent.
There is no telling how high that number might be this month. According to Bell Media, the Game 6 audience averaged 7.7 million viewers, which shattered the record for a basketball game on Canadian television. (It was only a 3-day-old record, set when an average of 6.4 million watched Game 5.)
“Will all of them stay? Of course not,” Yigit said. “But that doesn’t really matter. If 10 per cent, 20 per cent or 30 per cent stay, that’s a big explosion for the sport.”
Ted Badner has seen some early ripples of an explosion. He is president of HoopDome, the basketball cathedral built at Downsview Park. Without any paid advertising, he said, registrations for summer camps inside the dome are up 25 per cent.
He has seen interest bleed over into other sports. His son is on a high-level baseball team filled with a handful of children who also play hockey.
“I’ve got baseball kids, at 14 and 15, who have watched every Raptor game and are asking me about the feel and the excitement of NBA games,” said Badner. “It’s infectious.”
It is still not clear, though, exactly how far the basketball fever has spread.
These Finals could have elevated Leonard and Durant to the next great rivalry in the NBA. It’s so hard for teams to match up with elite combo forwards that they often advance through the playoffs until they face someone like them. LeBron played one of the two in three of the past five Finals before this season. This would have been the first time Durant and Kawhi faced off on the biggest stage in the sport. One of the most exciting games of the regular season was an overtime shootout in November when Durant went for 51 and Kawhi had 37. Now, with KD’s future up in the air as he recovers from the most devastating injury in basketball, they may never meet again at full strength.
This season may have been a changing of the guard at the most important position in the game. Kawhi turns 28 in two weeks. He’s entering his prime and his two biggest rivals are no longer standing in his path. LeBron turned 34 in December, the same age as Michael Jordan in his final season with the Bulls, and suffered the worst injury (pulled groin) of his career this past season. The Lakers aren’t favored to sign any of the major free agents this offseason, and need to win the Anthony Davis sweepstakes to stay relevant. Durant turns 31 in September, and may never be the same player again. Kawhi’s biggest concern going forward will be his health. He missed almost the entire 2017-18 season with a quad injury, and he was favoring the same quad in these playoffs. No matter where he signs in the offseason, Kawhi will likely continue the “load management” that limited him to only 60 regular-season games with Toronto.
If injuries don’t get in his way, Leonard now controls the balance of power in the NBA. The Raptors will rebuild if he leaves, and almost any team would become a contender if they signed him. Most people around the league have long assumed that he will ultimately sign with the Clippers. Los Angeles is his hometown, and the Clippers can create enough room under the salary cap to sign two players to max contracts. Winning a championship in Toronto may have changed his plans, but there’s no way to know for sure. He doesn’t owe the franchise anything. They had no margin for error in the playoffs, even with Kawhi playing like an all-time great. Raptors president Masai Ujiri, assuming he doesn’t leave for the Wizards, will have to convince Kawhi that he can keep a title contender around him for the rest of his prime.
The problem with predicting what moves Leonard makes is that he’s made a career out of being one of the NBA’s most inscrutable stars.
He’s not standoffish or unwilling to share. Over the course of the Raptors long playoff run he’s provided insight into how he’s worked diligently on his mental game to arrive at his even-keeled approach, how losing his father to gun violence affected him as a teenager and the betrayal he felt when his injuries were questioned in San Antonio, precipitating him being traded to the Raptors last summer.
But when it comes to his future beyond this season he’s said nothing on the few occasions anyone has tried to pry, including when ABC’s Doris Burke asked Thursday night moments after Leonard and the Raptors closed out their 4-2 Finals win over Golden State.
Through the season Leonard’s unwillingness to engage the topic was a positive — the drama around Leonard’s future was non-existent because he calmly brushed aside any efforts to have him address it.
But Leonard’s plans are the one cloud hanging over the Raptors’ parade of joy. Danny Green is a pending free agent and Marc Gasol has an option he can exercise if he wants to stay in Toronto, or he can choose to become a free agent also. Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are all heading into the final seasons of their deals. There are a lot of balls in the air, but Leonard is the biggest one, and whatever he chooses will cause a massive splash around the NBA.
“He’s got to consult with his family, his agency and whoever else he keeps close to him and make a decision just like I’m going to do the same,” said Green, who was traded to the Raptors from San Antonio with Leonard and has now played alongside him for eight seasons. “But I think his decision impacts — I’d be foolish (to not say) it doesn’t impact a lot of guys’ decisions. Because he can change a whole organization. He can change a whole team. He can change a lot of guys’ careers or make a lot of guys’ careers easier. So that decision weighs on, I think, a lot of guys’ free-agency decision.”
Because the Raptors appear to be an anomaly, they have naturally been compared to other one-year wonders. Like the 2004 Pistons, they combined a brutal defense with a roster full of smart and savvy veterans to take down a dynasty. Like the 2011 Mavericks, they clicked at exactly the right moment and earned a championship for a longtime franchise icon in Lowry. And like the 2014 Spurs, they made the defending champs crack on their home floor.
It’s no accident that both the Spurs and the Raptors featured Leonard, whose two-way game has become the stuff of legend. There might be a better player somewhere in the league, but no one had a better postseason than Kawhi. The Finals may not have been as spectacular as his other playoff series, but he still averaged nearly 27 points and 10 rebounds en route to a second Finals MVP award.
Kawhi brought the Raptors back from the brink of a 2-1 deficit against Philadelphia with a Game 4 for the ages, and finished that series with the most important shot in franchise history. In the conference finals, he put the clamps on presumptive league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and completely changed the outcome. Against the Warriors, Kawhi was simply there. He was faster and stronger to loose balls, and when shots needed to be made, he stuck them.
The Raptors adopted his steely persona and made it their own. The most indelible image they created during the Finals was when they left the court in Game 4 wearing stone-cold expressions after taking two straight at Oracle. They came here expecting to win and they did, shutting the old concrete funhouse down with a giddy champagne bath.
Lowry was just a player to me, good but flawed. But my brother said that he was trash, and my brother is an honest man. He scored 26 points and had 10 assists in game six, and helped the Raptors to their first ring. Was this the game of a trash player? The Raptors won because he was great, that doesn’t equate with being trash. Yet my brother said that he was trash; And my brother is an honest man. But you all saw in the Finals, Lowry could have collapsed after the first two games, yet he played well in the last four. Is that trash?
Yet my brother said Lowry was trash; And sure, my brother is an honest man. I’m not here to say that my brother is wrong, just to talk about what I saw in the Finals. Many of us have slandered Lowry before, not without reason: what has changed then, that he’s no longer a joke? Could it be that the idea of players often overrides their reality? And our arguments are often too reductive? Or that players are not condemned in static narratives. I think there’s much to think about.
Just a few weeks ago, Lowry’s failures were the embodiment of the old Raptors; Now he’s an NBA champion. And everyone is praising him. If I was to say that this change of attitude is dishonest and fickle, I would do my brother and NBA fans, who are all honest people, wrong. I will not do them wrong; I would rather be unfair to myself, to every other writer and the world, before I do wrong to such honest people.
But I want to praise Lowry for what he did in these Finals, especially Game 6. When the Raptors needed him, he came through. In his first ever NBA Finals, in an elimination game, he scored the first 11 points for his team.
Every Raptors season before had ended in some sort of failure, either by being an objectively awful season (16 wins!) or following a bad trade (Vince Carter) or failed signing (Hedo Turkoglu) or draft bust (too many to name) or playoff failure (way, way too many to name). The Raptors never accomplished anything of substance, not really; even the “moral victories” — the first .500 season, the first playoff series, Game 7 against Brooklyn — left you wanting more.
But now there’s nothing more to want. It’s done. The goals are all accomplished, the journey complete. The Raptors are NBA Champions, they dethroned the Warriors, and the Larry O’Brien Trophy belongs to Toronto.
It’s so immensely satisfying, to finally, after 24 years, come to the end of a season and have no what-ifs or if-onlys. There’s no letdown, no clinging to hope that next season will be different. No “I can’t believe it’s over” moment. There’s no disappointment or craving for more, there’s no praying for a good lottery turnout or that a free agent will meet with the team or that they’ll pull off a trade that will finally, finally change things and give the Raptors a real chance.
The trade happened. The Toronto Raptors got their chance — and made the most of it.
We got to see all the moves Masai Ujiri made over six years coalesce into a championship team. We got to see our young studs, drafted so late (or not at all) show up on the biggest stage. We got to see our veterans fulfill their ultimate goal. We got to see Kawhi Leonard, an absolute superstar, play at the highest possible level, hit the most incredible shot, and win Finals MVP.
And we got to see Kyle Lowry, NBA Champion, hoist that Larry OB.
Very few players have backgrounds like Siakam’s. But his remarkable emergence from obscurity after only picking up the game of basketball less than a decade ago has taught him to dream big — a favoured saying of team president Masai Ujiri — and to not put a ceiling on his future.
“I always felt like I deserved to be at this level, and that’s something that I worked for. Obviously, I know that there’s more, there’s more to come,” he said. “This is only the beginning for me, and I’m just gonna continue to rise and continue to learn.” Siakam was particularly proud of how he rallied from tough games during the season and in the playoffs. How he recognized what wasn’t working and grew from them.
“You come in at the beginning of the season, and it was good, but then you hit a point where you get to another level, and you get hit again, and you’re not that great anymore, then you learn and you get better,” he said. “For me, I think the motivation is look what you did in three years. What can you do in 10? You know? It’s about continuing to build and understanding that you put the work in and you got to this point, but it’s only been three years. What can you do in more than that? So that’s my motivation. Seeing how great I can be. That’s the next step now.”
The Raptors are intrigued to find out.
RAPTORS TITLE: (8-0!): I’m already sick and tired of the knuckleheads that say the Raptors benefited from the Warriors’ health issues. Bottom line, they won the title fair and square and totally earned it. In six Finals games and two regular-season games, the Raptors went 6-2 against Golden State. Ask yourself this question, which team was so close to being 8-0 in those eight games? It sure wasn’t the Warriors! The rightful winner won! Enough said.
“The experience that we had, winning a championship. Once you win a championship, the next thing you want to do is do it again … Obviously, having him has been a great experience for me, learning from him. Definitely want him back. At the same time, me as a player, all I can do is support him in whatever he wants to do, obviously. Hopefully he can come back. I’m gonna let Kawhi do what Kawhi does.”
They won a title. This team lived up to the example and leadership of its one-year superstar: as Gasol said, they approached every tough moment brilliantly. Coach Nick Nurse said of Lowry that he has never seen a player play harder. Siakam’s ceiling is sky-high.
But now, like many teams, the Raptors are at Kawhi’s mercy. VanVleet, characteristically, summed it up.
“For us, at least speaking for myself, there’s nothing more that we can do,” said VanVleet. “We’ve done it, the city’s done it, the franchise has done it, the coaches have done it, the teammates have done it. We’ve done our job. The best way to recruit somebody is to be yourself over the course of the year, and I would assume that he knows what is here and what makes this place special.
“And if it’s enough it will be enough and if it’s not, it’s not. We all love him and we would all love for him to be back, and if he’s not we’ll move on from there. So it’s not the biggest deal in the world. He came and did what he was supposed to do. He came here and brought this city a championship, and I think he’s earned his freedom in his career to do what he wants to do, and we’ll all respect him and admire him.
“And if he’s on another team, we’ll have to kick his ass next year. But hopefully he’ll be back.”
That’s where they’re at. Everyone should enjoy the parade, and treat it — safely — like the chance of a lifetime. Because after that comes the future, and there are no guarantees.
Marc Gasol has won a gold medal at the 2006 FIBA world championship with Spain and has two silver medals from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, so he is no stranger to the highest level of basketball success.
Now the 34-year-old has an NBA championship to add to his list of accomplishments, and he was asked Sunday if the last couple of days basking in the Raptors’ triumph were what he expected.
“Yeah, with a lot more beer than expected,” he said, “but I was able to handle it pretty well.”
Gasol will play for Spain the World Cup in China, starting Aug. 31, and still has to decide whether to exercise his player option and remain with the Raptors next season or test NBA free agency in July.
“I’m sure that the franchise has other priorities to go first, and I’m sure that once that is decided we’ll see what the rest is, or what they want to do or how it goes,” he said. “But it’s time to celebrate and enjoy this moment.”
CBSSports.com NBA writer joined Jody to discuss the sense of excitement in Toronto after they won the Finals, how you have to include the injuries to the Warriors as a factor in beating Golden State, the brilliance Masai Ujiri showed in the trade deadline deal to get Marc Gasol, if Ujiri would consider taking the Wizards general manager position and if the Pelicans got enough back from the Anthony Davis trade.
The first step was to meet with DeRozan for a candid chat about their future in Toronto. “We were going to win,” Lowry says. “That’s all we talked about: winning. Whether it was together here in Toronto or individually elsewhere, we were going to win.”
Next he had to improve his relationship with head coach Dwane Casey, whose idea of what a point guard should be didn’t mesh with Lowry’s on-court style. “The two of us have learned to adapt to each other,” Lowry says. “We’re always going to have disagreements, but there’s a mutual respect.” Since the near-trade, the Raptors have the most total wins in the Eastern Conference.
All of the goodwill that had been built up between the two was for naught when, last May, the Raptors fired Casey, just a few weeks before he was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year. What came next was even more shocking — Lowry’s co-pilot, DeRozan, was traded.
The deal upset Lowry, who was largely out of contact with the team during the rest of the off-season. With new teammate Kawhi Leonard joining the team, no Raptor had to alter their role more than Lowry; suddenly there was a new sun he and his teammates would have to orbit around.
Soon enough it was clear that, with Leonard in the fold, Lowry had a better chance than ever to win a title, and the point guard eventually embraced his new teammate and formed a new friendship.
Through time, trials and maturation, Lowry has learned to appreciate what it took to reach his goals. “As you get older, you begin to understand the responsibilities you have,” he says. “If you want to be the guy, your responsibilities change — you have to be front and centre.”
Empowered by the trust of his coaches and teammates, and by an unprecedented amount of love from Toronto’s fan base, he’s found a new comfort level. Now he’s free to focus on the only goal he ever truly cared about: “I think about LeBron’s slogan, ‘Strive For Greatness.’ That’s really what it’s about,” Lowry says. “I want to be a great player, to win championships. I want to be f–king great.”
Lowry’s playoff run is almost too neatly packaged. After scoring zero points in a Game 1 loss to the Orlando Magic, Lowry bore the brunt of criticism from fans and analysts. During the Game 6 victory over the Golden State Warriors, Lowry had his finest hour, putting up 26 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds, three steals, and playing outstanding defence to cement his Raptors legacy.
“I’ve never seen anyone play harder than this guy. Ever. And that to me is like the ultimate compliment. I’ve never seen anybody play harder than this guy. And there’s times in those film sessions, where I just, I can’t believe it,” Nurse continued.
“There was one play where we were showing the other day, we went triangle-and-two in game five, and he ran out, and challenged a shot over on the left wing, it bounced and went, he was pressuring (Andre) Iguodala the passer, (Steph) Curry came off here, and he ran over and challenged it, and the ball bounced on the rim and went flying that way, and he was the one, he came skipping through about three guys and grabbed that rebound. I mean, I’m showing that to the team and telling them, can anybody else, what if we all start doing that, just a little bit?”
It’s the ultimate series of compliments a point guard can get from his head coach and Lowry fully deserves them all. This duo will be at the forefront of the Raptors’ title defence, but for now they’ve both earned some well-earned rest.
Bet on yourself
Fred VanVleet was mired in a horrific shooting slump. He shot a ghastly 12.9 percent from the field during Toronto’s second-round series against Philadelphia and the fans were quickly losing confidence in him. Luckily, VanVleet’s motto has always been to bet on himself, and he emerged as one of the real heroes of the title run.
After the birth of Fred’s son, Fred Jr., on May 20, VanVleet’s entire game turned around, capping off one of the most drastic swings we can recall. VanVleet shot a blistering 83.3 percent from the field in Games 4 and 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, while adding 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting from three in Game 5. He was just getting started.
The Raptors’ guard had the unenviable task of blanketing Steph Curry and did so admirably, with Nick Nurse electing to start him for the second half of Games 3 and 4, steering his team to road victories over the Warriors. VanVleet also took an inadvertent elbow from Shaun Livingston which jarred his tooth loose and had him looking like former Philadelphia Flyers star Bobby Clarke. It didn’t stop him one bit.
VanVleet set the record for most threes off the bench in Finals history, and his rainbow looper to clinch Game 3 is one of the defining moments of the Raptors’ run.
“I loved all of them. Whether it was winning with Birmingham or with Rio Grande Valley. I never really got discouraged. I didn’t really care about the level I was coaching at. I just wanted to learn and get better.”
He arrived in the East Midlands a lifetime ago, hired by Derby owner Tim Rudge as a player-coach. Nurse had just finished a scholarship at the University of Northern Iowa, where he had built a solid reputation on and off the court. He had served as an assistant to Eldon Miller and although the NBA was never an option, he still felt there were some playing opportunities further afield. He sent his CV to various teams around the globe but heard nothing. Then Rudge called, offered him a dual role and Nurse made his BBL debut five days later.
“He was in his early 20s but looked about 16 or 17 and was quite scrawny” says Martin Ford, who was part of that Derby team. “And he was pedantic. It was all about precision. ‘You sprint down the floor and you stand at this point because this is the optimum place you need to be to start our offense’. Now, that point was about half a square meter. So, the biggest thing I took from him was the pinpoint positioning of players.”
The team travelled to games in a white van. It was customary for the coach to drive but Nurse wasn’t old enough to take the wheel of a rental so Ford, the starting center, stepped up instead.
“A couple of times it broke down on the M1, driving back from Thames Valley and Crystal Palace,” he remembers. “I tried to cradle it to the service area but didn’t manage it so we had to offload on the motorway and wait for assistance. A slight difference to what Nick is used to now.”
Nurse used the unconventional travel experience to his advantage. It allowed him to build relationships, namely with Ford. And that led to trust and the players committing fully to what their coach wanted.
“He was my co-driver,” Ford says. “He’d sit in the front and we’d chat. He was interested in you as a person. He wanted to know about my work, my family. That keeps you grounded as an individual but it also allows you to almost demand more from other people. I remember one game and it was tight. I’d got injured, rolled my ankle or something. He took a timeout, came up to me and said, ‘I need you out there. I know you’re hurt but there are young lads here who don’t have the experience so you’ve got to come out and give me everything you have to try and help us win this game now.’ Because he’d got to know me and because he’d allowed us to get to know him, we understood that desire to win. He created that within us. So I was quite happy to get back out there.”
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