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An inexplicable sports story: How big decisions and a genuine superstar have made magic in Toronto

The unlikely Raptors, led by the incredible Kawhi Leonard, face the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals tonight.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors Kawhi Leonard dunks over Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks during the decisive Game 6 win for the Toronto Raptors last Saturday night. Source: USA TODAY Sports

Eoin O’Callaghan reports from Toronto.

FOR A SPORTS-MAD place, there has been a painful lack of success for the majority of the last half a century. With the exception of the Blue Jays’ back-to-back World Series wins in 1992 and 1993, Toronto teams have famously struggled to land big prizes.

But, something has been simmering recently.

Major League Soccer side Toronto FC landed the 2017 championship after a bitter final defeat the previous year. The much-maligned Maple Leafs, without a Stanley Cup triumph since 1967 and with just a single appearance in the postseason in 12 years, started to piece together an exciting roster and consistently reached the play-offs again.

And then there was the Raptors. Under Dwayne Casey’s guidance and with DeMar DeRozan a standout and repeat All-Star, they’d undergone a remarkable transformation and blossomed into a consistently impressive team. But there was just one problem: LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers.

After five seasons without postseason basketball, Casey oversaw five successive appearances. In 2016, there was even an Eastern Conference final. But, with the series tied at 2-2, the Raptors were schooled in Ohio. The Cavs were so much in control by half-time that James sat out the final quarter completely. At the time of his departure, they were leading by 37. They’d end up winning by 38. 

“They kicked our butts, bottom line,” Casey admitted afterwards.

Two days later, back in Toronto, they got the job done with LeBron hitting 33 and Kyrie Irving 30. They’d go on to claim a spectacular title too, coming from 3-1 down to win Game Seven in Oakland.  

The Raptors never got as close again.

Until now.        

Tonight, they’ll play in their very first NBA Finals and attempt to deny Golden State Warriors a third straight crown, an achievement last accomplished by Phil Jackson’s LA Lakers in 2002.  

The Raptors haven’t exactly come from nowhere but their story remains largely inexplicable. Many were waiting for the slip to come. Well, because it always did. Despite an impressive regular season, an easy, breezy First Round win in five over Orlando and a thrilling, absorbing, last-gasp victory over Philly, there were still doubts. And when they went 2-0 down to the Bucks in the Conference decider, it made sense. Once again, the Raptors had reached their level. Close. Nearly. Almost.    

But, they weren’t done. In Game 3, in their own backyard, they were forced into a second overtime, managed to hold on and started building momentum again. It was the first of a four-game streak and the Bucks were banished on a memorable Saturday night for the city.

Downtown, you could hear the noise well into the small hours. There were street parties around Yonge and Dundas as fans made their way from either the Scotiabank Arena or the outdoor viewing space at Maple Leaf Square (christened Jurassic Park) and mingled with those excitedly stepping out of various bars to join in the fun. It was all very Canadian and, just a little bit reminiscent of the scenes in downtown Vancouver after the country’s gold medal hockey success at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Thousands danced together to pretty much an exclusively-Drake soundtrack. Strangers hugged and high-fived. Some jumped on top of a nearby bus and danced there. And, the next day, it was revealed that amidst all of the chaos, there had been no arrests and the city gave itself another pat on the back.  

In truth, it’s all been rather infectious. And – for the most part – the support has seemingly been country-wide, which is startling as Toronto has a difficult relationship with the rest of Canada. The affection for the team has even seeped into the US. And maybe it’s all because of Kawhi.  


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THE CANADIAN PRESS 2019-05-27 A mural of Kawhi Leonard has just been unveiled at Toronto's Regent Park. Source: Doug Ives


Last summer, everything changed for the Raptors when Casey was fired after another playoff loss to Cleveland. It had been a record-breaking regular season with 59 wins. They were top seeds in the East. And then were whitewashed by LeBron and co. for the second successive year. For Masai Ujiri, the team’s president, it was rinse and repeat and something had to give. Though he admitted later it was the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life, Ujiri pushed Casey out and hired rookie Nick Nurse, who’d been an assistant coach.     

Later in the summer, DeRozan – a nine-year veteran of the team and its most high-profile member – was sent to San Antonio in a seismic move. There were bitter recriminations and many fans questioned the wisdom of the trade, particularly when it was Kawhi Leonard they were getting as part of the deal.

Leonard was a Finals MVP for the Spurs when they were crowned champions in 2014 but when his relationship with Gregg Popovich broke down after a prolonged absence due to injury, he was actively seeking a way out. With fitness concerns and questions regarding whether Leonard really wanted to be there, Ujiri had taken a risk but figured it was worth it.

And it has proved a masterstroke. Excellent all season, Leonard has stepped up and delivered when it’s mattered most – the one thing levelled against DeRozan during his time in Toronto. He’s led the team, genuinely inspiring the guys around him. The minutes he put up against the Bucks – an average of more than 41 per game and a massive 53 in the crucial win in Game 3 – has eradicated any anxiety there may have been surrounding injury or general fatigue. And that buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Conference semi against Philly already cemented his legacy in the city before the Eastern title was sealed.

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors Kawhi Leonard conjures a breathtaking buzzer-beater to push the Toronto Raptors past the Philadelphia 76ers and set up an Eastern Conference final clash with the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this month. Source: USA TODAY Sports

He’s the leading man, and though the likes of Kyle Lowry have more than played their part, Leonard is adored here.

He’s unlike anything the Raptors have had before and represents the perfect metaphor for the team’s entire season.        

- Originally published at 07.45

Gavan Casey is joined by Murray Kinsella and Sean Farrell for a review of the 2018/19 season, and cast an eye forward to next year and the Rugby World Cup in Japan.:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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