NBA

On the anniversary of Raptors' championship, NBA finds itself in a whole new world

One year ago, on June 13, the Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors 114-110 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to clinch the first championship in franchise history. A lot has changed since then.

League set to head to Disney World with pandemic, protests top of mind

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry holds the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy up for the fans during the team's championship parade in June 2019. One year after the Raptors' title, a lot has changed. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

One year ago, on June 13, Toronto became the happiest place on earth after the Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors 114-110 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to clinch the first championship in franchise history.

Three hundred and sixty-six days later, the NBA plans to resume play and eventually crown a 2020 victor without fans in the stands at the self-described "happiest place on earth" — Florida's Disney World.

Suffice it to say much has changed.

The 2019-20 NBA season was officially suspended March 11 after Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19.

More than two months later, the league announced its Disney World plan as Black Lives Matter protests raged worldwide following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer now charged with second-degree murder.

Danny Green was the starting shooting guard for the 2019 champion Raptors. He now plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, regarded by many as favourites to win the 2020 title. Green said he and some of his former Raptors teammates have been reliving last year with the current season paused.

"The Toronto Raptors are going to be the longest reigning champs in the history of the NBA," Green said.

Danny Green looks out at the crowd during the Raptors' championship parade. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Still, with the perspective of a pandemic and a worldwide movement, Green said the title run means less today than it did a year ago.

"Obviously, it's the ultimate goal for us, we love it and it's always the end goal achieving it, but given what's happening now, we've realized there's more important things in the world, the issues, than sports," Green said.

As NBA players join the frontlines of protests throughout the U.S., Green said he too has attended one in Los Angeles, where he's currently living, and plans on attending more.

From the Miami Heat's #Hoodiesup picture after Trayvon Martin's death in 2012, to the league-wide "I can't breathe" protest after Eric Garner's death and further action against ex-Clippers owner Donald Sterling, outed as racist in 2014, NBAers have a recent history of using their platform to try to force change.

Green said that could continue when basketball returns in Disney World.

"We've talked about it, not just with teammates but with other people outside of our team, outside of our organization making sure that we keep its emphasis," he said. "Nothing we're planning, but making sure we're on the same page and we're not letting us be a distraction to what's going on in the world, even though we are supposed to keep entertaining people."

The meaning of the 2020 championship, then, may go beyond the court.

"I think that it will be looked at even more if we're able to win one during these times, when it's tougher during a pandemic, during the riots, the protests," said Green.

In other words, the so-called "asterisk" meant to diminish the champions of this weird season could work the other way, where the team that fights through is remembered as a symbol of perseverance.

Path to the 2019 title

The Raptors' title was diminished by some in other ways — the Warriors' Kevin Durant played just 12 minutes the entire series, and Klay Thompson missed Game 3 before tearing an ACL in Game 6 — but it was a difficult path nonetheless.

Kyle Lowry was held scoreless in a Game 1 loss to Orlando before the Raptors reeled in four straight wins. That Philadelphia series, and Kawhi Leonard's miraculous Game 7 shot. Dropping two straight to top-seeded Milwaukee, eking out a double-OT victory in Game 3 and then using a 26-3 run to win the East in Game 6.

WATCH | Leonard's 4-bounce buzzer-beater:

The Toronto Raptors won their first NBA title in franchise history with a 114-110 win in Game 6 of the NBA Finals over the Golden State Warriors. 2:56

In the Finals, there was Fred VanVleet's bloody eye, and Lowry was shoved by a Warriors owner, and Nick Nurse's "janky" box-and-one defence to stop Steph Curry, and Lowry returning to score the first 11 points of the decisive Game 6.

"When you think about winning a championship, you think about how hard it was to get there and hard it was to win it. And obviously it's way different than this year," Green said. "And I think about my brothers, my teammates and how we came together and the relationships and the bonds that we've built throughout that year."

It wasn't a new experience for Green, who won a championships with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014. VanVleet, conversely, had only known playoff disappointment during his prior two years in the league with the Raptors.

"Winning a championship was everything I thought it would be and more," VanVleet said. "The journey of actually being in the playoffs was way more excruciating and intense than I thought it would be just because of how long it took to finish those series out. I mean, two and half extra months of basketball."

"But the actual winning and celebrating and having the whole summer to enjoy it and kind of rest on what you've done, that was beyond anything I could have imagined."

WATCH | Highlights from Raptors' title-clinching victory:

Kawhi Leonard poured in 41 points, including a dramatic game-winner as the Toronto Raptors beat the Philadelphia 76ers 92-90 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. 1:23

Both players marvelled at the massive number of people who showed up to the championship parade, too.

"The whole of Canada all there at once. People came from all over. Obviously, Toronto showed up. That was an unbelievable day that I'll never forget," VanVleet. said

Added Green: "I can't ever not think about those people that are there when I think of Toronto. I always think about millions of people being outside and celebrating us."

Home-court advantage no more

It's the people, Green said, that count as the biggest loss when the NBA returns without fans. There are other home-court advantages, like sleeping in your own bed, that will be gone, but the lack of crowd could make the largest impact.

"It can shift the atmosphere, the attitude of your team, the momentum. And obviously it can work for you or it can go against you," Green said.

Since 2009, 75 per cent of NBA playoff series have been won by the team with home-court advantage.

In the Raptors' case last spring, Green emphasized the series against the 76ers, one that literally came down to the final buzzer, as an instance where home-court advantage might have made the difference.

The 2020 Raptors, No. 2 in the East, and Green's Lakers, No. 1 in the West, will both lose that advantage in Disney World. Green said discussions are ongoing for ways to mitigate the lack of home court, such as adding possessions or increasing foul limits for the designated "home team."

It is worth noting that the final five games of the 2019 Finals were won by the road team. Green points to the mental sharpness and motivated attitudes required to focus in a hostile environment as possible reasons for that outlier series.

But on the anniversary of the first NBA title in Canadian history, it will still be at least seven weeks until basketball returns from its pandemic-induced pause. If and when the sport does come back, the players will have more on their minds than just basketball. They will continue the fight against racism and social injustice.

All of that is why Green doesn't mind reliving that championship run for now.

"It's always going to be special and it's always going to put a smile on my face when I think about it or watch it. So yeah, it's special. Special moments, man."

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