Kawhi Leonard, Raptors Top Warriors for 1st NBA Title After Klay Thompson Injury

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistJune 14, 2019

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard celebrates after the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, June 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

The Toronto Raptors took the court in 1995 and have played 24 seasons of NBA basketball since.

They can call themselves champions for the first time.

Toronto defeated the Golden State Warriors 114-110 in Thursday’s Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals to win the series on the road at Oracle Arena. The Eastern Conference representative didn’t lose a single game away from home against the mighty Warriors, preventing the modern-day dynasty from winning three straight titles and four in five years.

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While Toronto is the champion, Golden State's health remains an overarching storyline as this series goes down in the history books.

Already without Kevin Durant, the Warriors lost Klay Thompson to a knee injury in the third quarter after he scored 30 points as a primary offensive threat. That left Stephen Curry (21 points and seven assists), Andre Iguodala (22 points) and Draymond Green (11 points, 19 rebounds and 13 assists) to do the heavy lifting.

Even still, Golden State had an opportunity to win in the final 10 seconds after Danny Green threw the ball away. However, Curry missed a three-pointer that could have forced a Game 7.

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NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet all scored at least 15 points, and the visitors needed every last one.

            

Already a Toronto Legend, No Reason for Kawhi to Leave Raptors

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Toronto's acquisition of Leonard will go down as one of the greatest trades in NBA history whether he stays or not, but he has plenty of reasons to continue building his legend in a Raptors jersey.

The new champions took a tremendous risk sending Jakob Poeltl and DeMar DeRozan—already a franchise icon who helped make the team an annual contender in the Eastern Conference—to the San Antonio Spurs for Danny Green and Leonard with no guarantee the latter would stay for more than a season before hitting free agency. What's more, Leonard was coming off an injury that kept him out of all but nine games in his final season with the Spurs.

He now has the chance to become the prized free agent of the summer should he decline his player option, and Raptors fans would surely forgive him for moving on after he led them to their first title.

However, he no longer has to worry about whether he can become a household name in Toronto. He just put on a two-month showcase on national television during one of the greatest single playoff performances in league history and is known across the sports world.

He hit the series-winning buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the second round against the Philadelphia 76ers, sinking a shot that will go down in history. He out-dueled potential league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals. And he took down the mighty Warriors in the NBA Finals without losing a single game in the daunting Oracle Arena.

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With Durant out with a ruptured Achilles and LeBron James turning 35 years old in December, Leonard has a chance to become the preeminent player in the league next season while defending a crown in Toronto.

Should he stay, he would also have plenty of pieces around him, as Lowry posted a narrative-shifting 26 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds in Thursday's contest, which began with him taking over in the first quarter.

The five-time All-Star drilled his first three triples and sliced through the defense before finding Siakam for an alley-oop to set the tone, which created space for others to operate as the game continued. It was the type of performance that indicated he will be more than comfortable running the offense next season even if Leonard needs to rest periodically before the playoffs.

Elsewhere, Siakam, VanVleet and OG Anunoby provide the Raptors with a young core to build around and talented pieces who can take advantage of the doubles Leonard draws on a consistent basis. Siakam and VanVleet each took over games throughout these playoffs and could take more of the responsibility away from No. 2 in 2019-20.

Anunoby didn't play in the postseason because of injury, but he already battled James in last year's playoffs and has a promising future as someone who can model his game after Leonard's. The 2017 first-round pick is a two-way forward who often defends the opponent's best player while providing offense on the other end.

Veteran leaders are also present on the Raptors roster in Lowry, Ibaka, Green and Marc Gasol (should he pick up his own player option or re-sign in free agency). Plus, Toronto has a head coach in Nick Nurse who just won a championship in his first year at the helm.

While there is no guarantee the entire group will stay together, Leonard should have plenty to like north of the border.

He will forever be a Toronto legend after delivering the franchise its first championship. Now he has the chance to further cement his status as the best Raptor ever and make Toronto his new home.

              

Warriors Must Face Reality of Crumbling Dynasty

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Love or hate the Warriors, there is nothing to do but tip one's cap after their gutsy performance in this postseason.

They were already facing all the scrutiny that comes with being the two-time defending champions, receiving the opponent's best shot on a nightly basis throughout the season. As if that weren't enough, they lost Durant to a calf injury in their second-round showdown against the Houston Rockets and still managed to eliminate James Harden and Co.

All they did then was sweep the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals to set up these Finals without Durant stepping foot on the court.

Unfortunately for Golden State, Durant managed to play just 12 minutes in Game 5 of the Finals before rupturing his Achilles. As if that weren't enough, Thompson went down Thursday while playing at an incredibly high level.

It was the last straw for a resilient team that continued to reach into its bag of tricks until the final moment.

Curry caught fire and eliminated the Rockets on the road, Green played like he was five years younger against the Trail Blazers and the Splash Brothers sank three straight triples in Game 5 against Toronto to overcome a six-point deficit in the final three minutes and force one more game at Oracle Arena.

It would have been easy for Golden State to accept its fate at any of those moments, but it showed the heart of a champion until Curry's final three rimmed out Thursday.

It marked the end of the 2019 NBA Finals and perhaps the Warriors dynasty, as well.

Durant has a player option and may not return—all while he is nursing a long-term injury that could leave him forever a changed player. Thompson suffered a torn ACL, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, leading to concern about how long he will be out and how effective he will be when he returns.

"What matters is Kevin Durant is going to miss next season with an Achilles tear," head coach Steve Kerr told reporters. "What matters is Klay suffered a knee injury. We'll know more later. But it's just brutal, just brutal what these guys have had to deal with."

Those injuries and the resultant uncertainty are enough to stop the Warriors' run of success on their own, but Iguodala will also turn 36 next season. Shaun Livingston will turn 34 in September and looked noticeably slower in this series. Even Curry will turn 32 in 2019-20, although he has shown no signs of decline as he ages.

Beyond that, DeMarcus Cousins and Kevon Looney are both set for unrestricted free agency and could be looking to cash in for different reasons.

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Cousins is a four-time All-Star who accepted a discounted one-year deal while recovering from his own Achilles injury to pursue a ring in Golden State, and he may seek a bigger offer. Looney played well enough to become a critical member of the team's rotation and could cash in on the first major deal of his career.

So many question marks swirl around the Warriors in a league that has Leonard as a constant roadblock, Antetokounmpo coming into his own in Milwaukee, the Rockets as a perennial threat and a Los Angeles Lakers squad that could pair another All-Star or two with James this offseason.

Until the bitter end, the Warriors were champions in every sense of the word during these playoffs. It just might also be the end of one of the greatest dynastic runs the league has seen.

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