Road to the NBA championship: 10 key moments for the Toronto Raptors
From a risky coaching change through to the NBA Finals, this season provided plenty to remember
Twenty-four years, 228 players, nine head coaches, 947 wins and a national love affair later, the Toronto Raptors are finally NBA champions.
The Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors 114-110 in Game 6 to capture the country's first NBA crown.
Now the Raptors and their fans can forget the franchise's futile history. Really, that much was true when president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri acquired Kawhi Leonard and implicitly declared championship or bust.
Here are 10 transitional moments from the 2018-19 season that changed Raptors history forever.
Raptors replace reigning coach of the year
It could be argued that the riskiest move team president Masai Ujiri made over the past 365 days was replacing Dwane Casey, the reigning coach of the year, with a rookie NBA head coach in Nick Nurse.
Of course, Nurse rewarded Ujiri for that trust, and then some. The coach pressed the right buttons, from Kawhi Leonard's first night of load management all the way through Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Nurse's calm sideline demeanour was reflective of the veteran team he led.
Out goes DeRozan, in comes Leonard
The summer of change continued when all-star DeMar DeRozan and centre Jakob Poeltl were shipped (along with a first-round pick) to San Antonio in exchange for a disgruntled Leonard and Danny Green. The move was certainly bold, considering DeRozan's repeated outpourings of love for Toronto and the Raptors organization.
Still, the championship wouldn't have been possible without the trade. Leonard was a playoff force on his way to earning Finals MVP. He made the biggest shot in Raptors history in Round 2 before shutting down MVP favourite Giannis Antetokounmpo in Round 3, and then undoing the Warriors dynasty in the NBA Finals.
Siakam, Kawhi show out in Finals preview
Not many regular-season games were memorable, as the Raptors slowly ramped up in an effort to peak in the post-season. The organizational ethos was put plainly by Leonard when he referred to the regular season as "82 practices."
Still, there was one particular moment in the regular season that previewed what was to come in the playoffs. It was the first game that Leonard showed what he could be when playing at full health and attentiveness, as he scored 37 points in his head-to-head matchup with Kevin Durant. The game doubled as Pascal Siakam's breakout performance, as the Cameroonian set a career high with 26 points, which he'd later break four more times. The Raptors won 131-128 in overtime. Spicy indeed.
DeRozan gets his Raptors revenge in San Antonio
Leonard was met by boos in his return to the Spurs' barn, though some were drowned out by cheers for teammate Danny Green. Beyond the chilly reception, this was easily the Raptors' worst game of the season and one of few lowlights.
WATCH | DeRozan records triple-double as Spurs trounce Raptors:
The Raptors lost 125-107, and DeRozan notched his first career triple-double in this game to add some insult to the injury.
Raptors trade Jonas Valanciunas to Grizzlies for Marc Gasol
A lower stakes version of the Kawhi deal, Ujiri once again swapped a long-time Raptor for someone he viewed as an immediate upgrade. The hope was that Gasol could outdo Valanciunas on the defensive end while injecting more ball movement offensively. Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a second-round pick were also sent to Memphis.
The trade paid off. Gasol shut down Magic centre Nikola Vucevic in the first round before handling the 76ers' Joel Embiid in the second. Considering how close that second-round series was, the Raptors might not have won without Gasol's contributions.
Leonard steals the ball, and the spotlight, from DeRozan
A coronation of sorts for DeRozan in his Toronto homecoming became a display in what the Raptors had gained with Leonard. With the Spurs leading by one in the final minute, DeRozan brought the ball up the court only to be trapped by Lowry and Leonard. Leonard snatched the ball and went the other way for the game-winning dunk.
WATCH | Raptors honour DeRozan in return to Toronto:
Still, DeRozan was showered with applause before, during and after the game by a raucous Raptors crowd in a show of appreciation for the previous nine years.
Raptors lose another Game 1, but recover to crush Magic
Here we go again. Despite all of Toronto's recent success, the team continually struggled with Game 1, even when handed home-court advantage. This year was supposed to be different, but ex-Raptor D.J. Augustin nailed a dagger three-pointer to put the Raptors down 1-0 … again.
WATCH | Lowry held scoreless, Augustin hits winner in Game 1 loss to Magic:
That would be the extent of the Magic's magic, however, as the Raptors won the next four games handily. That response was the first of many times the Raptors showed off their experience and mettle in dealing with playoff adversity.
Kawhi makes time stand still
The signature shot of the playoffs. A gruelling series against the Philadelphia 76ers boiled down to one possession with the shot clock turned off at the end of Game 7. With the teams tied at 90, the Raptors put the ball in Leonard's hand with the fate of the game, season and series at stake.
Leonard received the inbounds and dribbled toward the corner closest to the Raptors bench. The seven-foot Embiid followed him, while six-foot-10 guard Ben Simmons trailed. Leonard reached the corner, turned, faded and released a high-arcing shot just over the extended arm of Embiid.
WATCH | Leonard's ridiculous buzzer beater sends Raptors to ECF:
The shot hung in the air, bounced off the front rim, bounced off the front rim again and rattled off the other side of the iron twice more before falling through the hoop. The Raptors were on to the conference final. Kawhi even smiled.
Raptors advance to 1st NBA Finals
For the third straight series, the Raptors climbed out of an early hole to storm back and win. Against the Bucks, Toronto found itself reeling after a blowout in Game 2 put them down 2-0. Returning home, Game 3 was close to a must-win. It took two overtimes, but the Raptors got the job done — and seemingly figured out the Bucks along the way.
WATCH | Raptors rally past Bucks to reach 1st NBA Finals:
The Raptors went on to win the next three games, too. They closed out the series at home in Game 6, leading to celebrations throughout Toronto and a date with the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
In their 24th year as an NBA franchise, the Toronto Raptors won their first title — in dominant fashion, too. Against a Warriors team missing Durant for the first four games, the Raptors came out calmly, using timely shooting and stout defence to dethrone the two-time reigning champs.
Leonard, to no one's surprise, won Finals MVP. Lowry stepped up when his team needed him most. Siakam kept spinning defenders into oblivion. Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Danny Green all authored their own key moments.
The Raptors became NBA champions. The journey was complete.