OAKLAND, USA – When Toronto traded DeMar DeRozan, the face of the franchise for a decade, to San Antonio to bring Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors, it was a risk.
Leonard had been the 2014 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player for the champion Spurs and was NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016 but missed almost all of the 2017-2018 campaign with a right quad injury.
But Leonard clicked with the Raptors and produced career-highs of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds a game as Toronto achieved the second-best record in the NBA at 58-24.
“I’ve been happy just being able to return to basketball at the beginning of the regular season,” Leonard said. “It’s pretty much something that I look back on of not being able to play and now I’m able to play. So just enjoy it. It’s why you’re here.”
The Raptors defeated defending champion Golden State, 114-110, to capture the best-of-seven Finals, 4-2, becoming the first team from outside the United States to win the title. (WATCH: Kawhi Leonard silences doubters with NBA title)
“It’s surreal,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said. “But I think when you put the team together and we all dream of a championship, the change was hard at the time, but we knew the kind of player we were getting and if we overcame and dealt with all the issues, we felt that could come together.
“We were all positive about this kind of moment and all dreamt about it.”
In the playoffs, the Raptors dispatched Orlando in the first round and overcame Philadelphia on a dramatic seventh-game basket at the buzzer by Leonard that bounced 4 times on the rim before dropping through for the winning points.
If that wasn’t enough of a thriller, the Raptors fell behind NBA season wins leader Milwaukee 2-0 in the Eastern Conference final before rallying to win 4 straight games and advance to their first final.
“We hit that dramatic buzzer beater to advance,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “We got on the plane the next day and had to play less than 48 hours after that. We came out and played unbelievably tough. The ball didn’t bounce our way that night. We didn’t get any breaks. But I thought we outplayed them.
“When we went down 0-2 our guys were like, ‘OK, let’s just get home and we’ll get this thing turned around.’ So that’s probably a moment of where I thought the team had something inside them to keep on going.” – With a report from Agence France-Presse