As media day unfolded in Toronto a day before the NBA Finals, with the basketball world in town, the Houston Rockets were eyeing the self-destruct button. They had a chance to finally beat the Golden State Warriors, and failed, and it was reported the Rockets were willing to trade just about anyone. Sometimes you win, or you implode.
That’s where the Raptors were a year ago, and look at them now. LeBron James destroyed what they had built, so Masai Ujiri installed Nick Nurse as coach and traded DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard and made a deadline deal for Marc Gasol and, a year later, here they are. The Toronto Raptors are playing for a title. They could win.
“There’s no knock here on the past, honestly, like because we were part of the past,” Ujiri, the Raptors president, said before Game 1. “So we’re part of that defeat, too. We’re part of the knock, right? So we just have to learn from it. That’s what I think good organizations should do, and we learned from that, and we find ourselves here.
“And there will be more learning moments, I think, but … that’s why we play the game is to win, and that’s what we want to do here is to win.”
The Raptors have a chance. The Warriors are the two-time defending champs and, even without injured two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant — who the Raptors do not expect will play in the series, but who knows? — this is their fifth straight Finals. They won’t be scared.
“Well, I always think anything we do will be good enough,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “That’s the confidence I have in our group.”
“We know what we’re capable of,” said two-time regular-season MVP Steph Curry.
But the Raptors are here. Everything Ujiri built seems almost inevitable in retrospect, but a lot of sports executives kick the can down the road and keep their job rather than roll the biggest dice. Ujiri was willing to take the risk, and bet on everything he had built here.
And he wound up with an awe-inspiring superstar, and a team whose defence has been able to eat teams alive, once they figure out the recipe. Ask a team insider whether they can try to blitz the incomparable Curry and still recover, or chase Klay Thompson off screens, or take away Draymond, or depress Golden State’s weather-like movement offence, and he says, “Sure we can try it. That’s the fun part: No matter what you ask, the answer is always yes.”
And with Kawhi, all things are possible. This is such a big moment for so many. For Ujiri, who has made it his mission to turn this backwater franchise into a real thing, into something durable and serious, and who just needed a superstar to make it work. For the franchise, which laboured from novelty to immaturity to relative obscurity to a team that still didn’t rank with the dominant teams in this city. For the sport in this country, which was made of small and scattered tribes and which now has a pile of where-were-you-when memories to treasure, and millions watching on TV, and kids in driveways pretending to be Kawhi, clock running down, at the buzzer. See if you can make it bounce.
But there is still no guarantee that he will stay. Kawhi’s voice was scraping with emotion when he spoke on the floor right after beating Milwaukee in Game 6. He has given everything to this, on and off the court. The organization, from end to end, has done just about everything right.
“I’m playing to have fun, and try to be the best player I can be,” said Kawhi. “I’m happy with myself and what I have done in my career, and I’m just going to keep on from there. It’s not about me being famous, or want to have more fame than those guys. It’s about me playing basketball, and having fun on the floor.”
But the Raptors could win and still, in this way, implode. If Kawhi thinks he can win with anybody, if he just misses his home in California more than he can say, then he could conceivably win a championship and still leave. Nobody knows yet. Ujiri was asked about the last time to discussed the future with Kawhi, and the case the Raptors have made for him to stay.
“I said it from day one, we are going to be us,” Ujiri said. “I think Kawhi Leonard is a superstar, and we’re going to treat him like a superstar, but we’re also going to do all the natural things that I think will help us get to that level, to convince Kawhi that this is the place for him. The future conversations I’ve had with Kawhi are about the Golden State Warriors and that’s his mindset. His mindset is what is at hand right now, what’s the job right now. And the job right now is to beat the Golden State Warriors.”
Ujiri talked about keeping Kawhi healthy, which they have done. He talked about the incredible passion of the city, the quality of the coaching, the grit of the team, the incredible moment in Game 7 against Philadelphia when Kawhi beat the 76ers, which everyone will remember forever. And Ujiri talked about the two toughest moments in sports: when you trade someone, or a free agent leaves. He says you have to trust you are prepared for anything.
The Raptors have a chance to win a championship. It is rare, the opponent is formidable, and the window is open for up to seven games. Every one will be a part of history in this city.
And that is all that is guaranteed. Nobody knows.
So all there is to do is enjoy the chance, right now. Kawhi keeps saying, live in this moment. The team follows him, and that’s how they play. That’s all they can do, and it’s all you can do, too. This moment in basketball history starts now.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur