KAWHI Leonard can smile now. That "Larry O'B" he and his equally ballsy teammates have relentlessly worked for is probably seating atop a table in their after-party somewhere as you read this, perhaps even being passed around for those obligatory drelfies (drunken selfie) for the "Gram.
It's been hours since the Kings of the North annexed the NBA into its fold. Their reign could either be brief or prolonged depending on how they'll play the free agency game in the coming months.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Now is the time to celebrate the Raptors journey. After years of being trampled on by LeBron James in the East, Toronto went on an exhilarating run anchored by a superstar coming back from an injury, supervised by a rookie head coach, kept stable and formidable by a retooled supporting cast, and managed by perhaps the boldest team president in the history of the game.
Geniuses, all of them.
Toronto’s path to the Promised Land wasn’t easy. They had to face the Orlando Magic’s topnotch defense, survive the top-heavy Philadelphia 76ers squad and the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, and outfox the NBA's best team in the last five years — the traumatically hobbled yet still defiant version of it, anyway.
In the end, sweet victory came to these newly minted NBA champions. It's time to have a thrilling memento of how these exemplary Raptors got it done. Highlights for everyone!
1. Serge Ibaka’s defensive tenacity
People were calling the three-time All-Defensive First Team member and two-time league leader in blocks washed up when he first arrived in Toronto. Against the Warriors, Serge I-block-a proved the doubters wrong with his two-pronged firepower from the bench.
2. Kawhi Leonard’s quiet leadership
Leonard was Embiid’s exact opposite in terms of on-court demeanor — both let their games do the talking, but JoJo loves to talk smack. That is why it was so refreshing to watch the Board Man have his way against The Process and the entire Philadelphia 76ers squad.
3. Pascal Siakam packing spice (and determination when it mattered)
Spicy P bolstered his case for the Most Improved Player Award as the Raptors’ second best player throughout the playoffs and the Finals. Siakam was everywhere on the court, challenging Draymond Green and making stops whenever his team needed one.
4. Marc Gasol’s overall oncourt savvy
Like Ibaka, Gasol was at first perceived as a liability against a dizzyingly mobile Warriors team. But the wisened former Grizzly reminded critics why he was named Defensive Player of the Year once and All-Star thrice, as he kept up with defensive rotations and found the open man.
5. Kawhi's ankle-breaking expertise
The Greek Freak looked unstoppable against the Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics, and the first two games of the Toronto series. It took stellar team defense from the Raptors and Leonard making Giannis work on both sides of the floor to put a fledgling basketball demigod in his place.
6. Kyle Lowry's toughness and willingness to take charge
Many are ragging on Lowry about not scoring points and putting up enough stats to back Kawhi up, but his impact on the game doesn't show up in the boxscore. True to his pitbull mentality, the first-time champ has drawn more offensive fouls than any player in the playoffs since 2001.
7. Danny Green’s no-quit frame of mind
Green’s best outing in the Finals was in Game 3, where he made six threes for 18 points after getting some shooting advice from — of all icons — Shaq. However, the former All-Defensive Second Team member and two-time NBA champ’s true value was evident in his ever-stingy perimeter defense throughout the post-season. Bravo, indeed, to the guy who almost threw away Game 6 with an errant pass.
8. Fred VanVleet’s gutsy stand and steady hand
Apparently, Leonard was almost a unanimous choice for Finals MVP, but legendary analyst Hubie Brown thought it was Kawhi undrafted teammate who deserved the award named after the equally legendary Bill Russell. Can’t blame Master Hubie, though. VanVleet shot the lights out from deep in the Finals while having the unenviable task of shadowing Steph Curry in the Raptors' highly scrutinized box-and-one defense.
9. Kawhi's fortitude
It’s only right to save the greatest shot in Toronto Raptors history — and possibly, Leonard’s career — for last. And the fact that it was in the face of a noisy customer like Embiid in a do-or-die Game 7 made this silent killer’s game-winner much sweeter.