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‘Is this real yet?’ Toronto Raptors’ first NBA title turns Kawhi Leonard shockingly loquacious

OAKLAND • Kawhi Leonard walked into the press conference room in Oracle Arena late on Thursday night, his white NBA Champions t-shirt soaked through with Champagne, his ski goggles perched on his forehead. He looked at the mass of people waiting to hear from the Finals MVP and made a very Kawhi-like statement: “Man.”

This was the exact thing he had said on stage a little earlier, when ABC’s Doris Burke told him that by winning the MVP trophy with two different franchises, he had joined a short list that included only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James.

“Man,” Leonard said then.


Still wearing goggles to protect his eyes from Champagne showers, Kawhi Leonard speaks with the media following the Toronto Raptors’ victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game Six of the 2019 NBA Finals on June 13, 2019 in Oakland, California.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

But back in the interview room, asked about the time he was traded to the Toronto Raptors in the summer, Leonard gave, for him, a shockingly loquacious answer. He said he came north with the right mindset, knowing that the Raptors were a capable playoff team and that they could do big things together.

“I texted Kyle (Lowry) probably a day later, or the day that I got traded, and told him I said let’s go out and do something special,” Leonard said.

The whole of the basketball world has long assumed that the former San Antonio Spur had to be begged and cajoled to show up in Toronto and play, but here he was saying that he was the one making the pitch to Lowry, wounded as he was by the deal that sent DeMar DeRozan to Texas. Leonard said he told him: “’I know your best friend left, I know you’re mad, but let’s make this thing work out.’ And we are here today.”


San Antonio Spurs DeMar DeRozan (10) hugs his former teammate Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry (7) after the game in Toronto on February 23, 2019.

Jack Boland/Postmedia Network

Where they are is at the peak of the NBA, celebrating a first Raptors championship to cap a most improbable season. The addition of Leonard transformed the snake-bit franchise into a team with Finals aspirations, but the Raptors had to fight and claw to get there. They trailed in every series getting out of the East, and arrived at the Finals to face the dynastic Golden State Warriors. But when everyone expected them to be polite guests at the coronation, they instead roared in and flipped over the buffet table.

The Raptors, a pastiche of players from all over the world, none of whom was selected in the top 14 of the NBA draft, and guided by a rookie head coach from a small town in Iowa, took down the league’s glamour franchise, a Warriors team that had lost just three times at home in the seven playoff series prior to these Finals. The Raptors beat them three straight times at Oracle Arena.

Fred VanVleet, the backup point guard who had a monster Game 6 in Oakland, scoring 12 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, including the three-point bomb that gave the Raptors the lead for good with under four minutes left, said the unheralded nature of the Toronto team was part of their identity.


A smiling Fred VanVleet hugs Danny Green as the Toronto Raptors celebrate their victory over the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals on June 13, 2019 in Oakland, California.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

“None of our guys probably, other than Kawhi, are in that big boy club or the fan boy club of the NBA,” said VanVleet, himself undrafted out of Wichita State. “We got guys who had to get it the long way, who had to get it out of the mud, who had to get it against the grain,” VanVleet said. “And we got a team full of them coming from all different places, all walks of life, all different life stories to get to this moment. But we got some talent, we got some talent for sure.”

Kyle Lowry, who had 26 points and 10 assists in Game 6, and who set a strong early tone for the Raptors with 15 of those points in the first quarter, was appropriately stunned by it all. More than anyone on the team, Lowry knew the pain of previous playoff failures, losses that had led directly to the DeRozan trade.

“Words can’t explain how I feel. It’s been a long, long time,” Lowry said. “Thirteen years of NBA basketball. Couple years of college. A couple years of high school basketball. And to be able to say I’m a world champion, it makes me feel great.”

Then Lowry said something that also stands as the opinion of most of the league, now that the Toronto Raptors are NBA champions.

“To do it with the group of guys that we did it with is amazing, like it’s just kind of still surreal,” Lowry said. “I’m still kind of in this moment of just, like, ‘Is this real yet?’ And for me just at the end of the day, I work extremely hard on my game, I work extremely hard on myself, and I am extremely hard on myself. And I’m happy to be able to say I’m a champion and it’s been a long time coming.”


Kawhi Leonard holds aloft his MVP award after his Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game Six of the 2019 NBA Finals on June 13, 2019 in Oakland, California.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

But while the Warriors were an apex-predator of a team that was penciled in as title favourites immediately after winning each of their three titles, the future of the Raptors is much less certain. Leonard, customarily, refused to entertain questions on his pending free agency, saying he wanted to enjoy the moment and deal with that later. Leaving a title-winning team for a new start somewhere else would be unprecedented in the annals of the NBA, but if any player was going to do it for reasons that only he would know, it would be the hilariously inscrutable Leonard. And while he was punting on questions about his future in Toronto late on Thursday, an ESPN report said that Masai Ujiri, the team president, would be hotly pursued by the Washington Wizards for the same role there.

If they both stay, the Raptors could be championship contenders for years to come. If either leave, just mounting a title defence would be tough.

These are concerns for later, though. For now, there is a parade to hold.

When VanVleet was speaking in the interview room on Thursday night, Lowry managed to get the microphone.

“Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors,” he deadpanned, and it was something.

The face of all those playoff stumbles, the guy who wore those losses like a yoke even if he rarely deserved much of the blame, was smiling and joking at the end of an NBA season. He asked VanVleet how it felt to be a champion. VanVleet paused, unsure whether he actually had to answer his teammate in this setting. Then he did.

“Um, it’s unbelievable, man,” he said.

It was a fine summary of the night and of the season.

 

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