Ibaka: "I don't care what talent you have, if you don't have toughness you're not going to be here. We're here today and we won tonight's game because we have toughness…" pic.twitter.com/i6pQU2ClWZ
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) May 26, 2019
Imagine hearing in 2017 that in 2019, Kawhi Leonard would be donning a Raptors jersey and going to the finals. You wouldn’t believe it. After a year of struggles with injury and disagreements with his team, Kawhi Leonard is at a point where he’s enjoying the moment. To quote Tyrion Lannister: what brings people together are stories, and the Raptors have as compelling a story as any. This entire team has been built out of players who have beaten the odds in one way or another. This is a team who knows that people aren’t favoring them, and they are here for blood. The Toronto Raptors have been the best defensive team this playoff run and there are reasons to doubt during these NBA Finals. Golden State has won 3 championships. 2 with Kevin Durant. One could have a less well constructed team and win a championship let alone 2 MVPs.
There is hope. As I said, the Raptors enter the series as huge underdogs. Here is where I am going to make a comparison. The ’04 Pistons. One can see the resemblance. Absolute underdogs going against superstars. Both teams are defensive minded, with a few consistent scorers. Chauncey Billups and Kawhi Leonard are both clutch enough to hit any big shot. Both teams have been able to neutralize the opponent’s high caliber players. Both have similarly had to trade for a big man to win (Gasol/R. Wallace). The ’19 Raptors have a top ranked defense as well, with a variety of scoring options, that could attack you in different ways
The ’04 Pistons weren’t a team that had 2 or 3 players scoring 30 points a game. They had people around the roster contributing 15-17 points a game with good defense, with Billups being the 1st option. This team whose very identity revolved around their defense: Ben Wallace was known for his defense and ONLY his defense. That Pistons team won a championship over the ’04 Lakers super team, because they were a cohesive unit, rather than relying solely on talent.
The Raptors can play ridiculous defense and it is the team’s identity. Being able to come back and win 4 games in a row takes mental fortitude. What is even more ridiculous is that the the Raptors would come back from 15 point leads for some of those games they won. The Raptors have been through adversity on the personal and basketball ends of life. A lot of them have been through the struggles of life, and that mentality shows. The thing with the Raptors, is that it has always been mental for them. They have been afraid of the playoffs, and their play from their regular season never translated over. But this time it has. The Raptors have been scrutinized in the playoffs since their inception. There were many sweeps that the team had to endure. They have become more than a team. They have become family.
We can see the adversity this team has been from a purely basketball perspective. Kawhi Leonard forced his way out because he thought that the Spurs did not have his best interests in mind. Spurs fans slandered Leonard and there were many boos. Toronto has had nothing but love for Kawhi, and he showed that he can lead a team to the Finals without Pop’s system. It’s been a great redemption arc for Kawhi Leonard: he has gone from the lowest point in his career close to the very pinnacle of basketball.
Furthermore, his team has also faced adversity. Siakam was a late 1st rounder and had to work to be good and to be where he is at. VanVleet went undrafted and worked his way up from the G-League. Gasol had spent years losing in the Western Conference to the Spurs. He had to endure being on a lottery team with the Grizzlies. Gasol now has the chance to compete at the highest level. The Bucks traded Norman Powell to Toronto. Kyle Lowry was tossed around the league and settled in Toronto. He then spent years getting beaten by Lebron James, until this year. Everyone has a story, and everyone has contributed to the wins these playoffs. Something that is most note-worthy is that the Toronto Raptors have no lottery picks in their lineup: the entire team knows that it has been overlooked.
Why They Can Upset Golden State
Toronto’s roster makeup is the modern game’s answer to the Warriors. Masai Ujiri has collected some of the meanest defenders in the league on the Toronto Raptors. All-Defensive selections and former DPOYs. Once again, I am going to refer to the ’04 Pistons. Their main strength was the lockdown defense they played, managing to keep opponents to under 90 points a game consistently. Due to the pace of the modern game, it is difficult envisioning any team scoring under 90 points, but the Raptors have had the best defense in the Playoffs. The Raptors have shown that they can guard All-Stars and Superstars: ask the Sixers or the Bucks: their young superstars were unable to imprint the game offensively, while having a great interior presence. The Raptors defense is the one constant they have as a team effective and deadly.
We can compare this Raptors team to the ’04 Pistons, but this team is better. The Raptors are better because the team has an ace on the offensive end, and that ace is Kawhi Leonard. In an age where many teams like to sit back and build their young superteam, the Raps are swinging for the fences. They are in the finals and they have the best player in the NBA. This team has something that the Pistons’ team never had the luxury of: a superstar. The Raptors have Kawhi Leonard, who can carry the offensive burden consistently. He has help, with up and coming star Pascal Siakam, who will finally be able to exploit his speed and length against the smaller Warriors. Lowry and Gasol are savvy veterans with amazing playmaking abilities. A superstar with good support? If you ask me that’s a recipe for an upset.
Everything has lead up to this moment: the Raptors’ postseason ascension has been nothing short of a fairy tale. Leonard makes their defense possible: he is the glue around the team that allows their defense to be an extremely high level. Kawhi Leonard can do absolutely everything humanly possible in a basketball game. The most elite player in the league alongside Kevin Durant. Don’t count the Raptors out: they might slay a dynasty.