It was an unkind ending to the Golden State Warriors’ back-to-back title run, with three championships in four years. After getting DeMarcus Cousins in and assembling what some thought would be the best starting five in NBA history, the Warriors were decimated by injuries in the deciding game of the NBA Finals.
The Toronto Raptors are the NBA champions.
That’s going to take some getting used to.
This whole NBA season and playoffs went off script, so nothing should have come as a surprise — although seeing the Warriors without Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson in the fourth quarter ranks right up there.
But give them full credit: Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors earned it.
Team president Masai Ujiri took a calculated risk in trading for Leonard and moving on from coach Dwane Casey — and it paid off. With LeBron James gone from the East, the Raptors took full advantage, finally turning their previous years of playoff heartbreak into a title, with a thrilling six-game triumph on Thursday night.
There will be pseudo-excuses about the Warriors playing without Durant and Thompson for most of the Finals and the Raptors getting lucky.
Part-truth, but also part-fallacy.
Although the Raptors often looked tentative in the early rounds of the playoffs, they pulled things together as the postseason progressed, with Leonard taking on the scoring load and willing the team past the Bucks in the conference finals and into the Finals.
Kyle Lowry got some validation after years of getting not close enough with DeMar DeRozan and Pascal Siakam and Fred Van Vleet opened some eyes as emerging young talents.
The Raptors took it to the Warriors from the start of the series and won all three games in the Finals at Oracle Arena — where Golden State lost just 11 times — in the final games there before the Warriors move to San Francisco next season.
It won’t be all champagne toasts for the Warriors next season, either.
Thompson has an ACL injury that could keep him out for half of the season and Durant, who can become a free agent, likely will miss the entire season because of his ruptured Achilles. That leaves the Western Conference more up for grabs than it has been since the Warriors’ reign started.
The Rockets reportedly were open to trading much of their roster in order to reconfigure and challenge the Warriors. They may rethink that plan now. The Blazers, who lost to Golden State in the conference finals, also could be a team in the hunt next season, along with the Lakers, Thunder and Nuggets.
Without Durant, who was reportedly considering the Nets and Knicks, the landscape in the East changes as well. The Raptors, if they can keep Leonard in the fold, likely would be the favorites to emerge again.
Ujiri and the Raptors did it the right way.
They didn’t tank.
They didn’t try to take shortcuts.
They took a huge risk in trading their superstar in DeRozan and putting their belief behind first-year coach Nick Nurse. They added Marc Gasol and they played the two-time defending champs — shorthanded or not — nose to nose.
To the victors go the spoils.
With their first title in franchise history, the Raptors have at least earned that much.