When the Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard, they were taking a major gamble. Leonard had proved in the past to be an extremely lethal player, but the turmoil around his relationship with the San Antonio Spurs worried some. To acquire such a major talent, there would also require a hefty return price; in addition, Leonard would be a free agent after the season, so there was no guarantee he would be there long term. The Raptors decided to trade a package that included DeMar DeRozan, who had been with the team for nine years and had been a major part of the nucleus of the team. The Raptors were a brand new team after losing a star and adding a new one. That calculated risk payed major dividends when the Raptors made the NBA playoffs as the #2 seed. The Raptors were happy with the way the team came together, but everyone knew they had been there before, and that the previous failures had left a bad taste in their mouths. The Raptors refused to be content with just being in the playoffs.
The Raptors made quick work of the Orlando Magic in the first round defeating the #7 seed in just 5 games including four straight wins. The next series proved to be much more difficult. The Philadelphia 76ers gave the Raptors just about all they could handle, but Leonard’s game seven, “quadruple-doink” shot finally lifted the Raptors past the #3 seed in the East. The Raptors then found themselves facing off against the Milwaukee Bucks, the #1 seed in the East that boasted the best record in the NBA and one of the most dynamic scorers, Giannis Antetokounmpo. After dropping the first two games, the Raptors stormed back and took 4 straight games, and they found themselves in unfamiliar territory: the NBA Finals.
The Toronto Raptors had never been to the NBA Finals and their opponent, the Golden State Warriors, had owned the NBA Finals recently playing in the last four NBA Finals and winning three of them. So, naturally, the Warriors sweep the Raptors and that’s the end of the story, right? Actually, the complete opposite is occurring; the Raptors are up 3-1 and even beat the reigning champions twice on their home floor.
This postseason, Leonard is leading the team per game in points, rebounds and steals, and he is second in blocks and assists per game. Leonard has been the best player in the NBA Finals so far, and his versatility on both offense and defense makes him so valuable. He continues to elevate his team every single game, and he has the Raptors on the cusp of greatness. With just one more win, Leonard can deliver the unthinkable to the Raptors: the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. While Leonard should easily win MVP, the real reason the Raptors own a 3-1 series lead isn’t because of their superstar; it’s because of everyone else on the team.
The NBA is superstar driven. Usually, a NBA championship team features a few superstars or all-stars, but it’s mostly comprised of average and above-average athletes. If we are talking about individual achievement, Leonard takes the cake, and it isn’t even a debate. Going into each series, you expect each superstar to get their points. For example, I expect Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to get 25-30 points each night. I’m not shocked if Curry goes for 33 points because I know it is well within his capabilities due to his skill. If Curry has a phenomenal night, for example the 47 points he scored in game 3 against the Raptors, then I am surprised. The superstars can only carry so much of the load however. The rest has to fall on the supporting cast. The Raptors are dominating this series because of the other role players.
When you compare the Warriors roster for their first game vs. game four of the NBA Finals one thing jumps out: almost nothing changed. The Warriors made almost no moves this season. Now, the reigning two-time NBA Champions didn’t have to make earthshaking lineup changes, but they barely adjusted their roster. The only difference from opening day to game four of the NBA Finals for the Warriors is that Damian Jones started for the then injured Demarcus Cousins, and they added Andrew Bogut later in the season to again supplement Cousins after injury. The Warriors felt their lineup was satisfactory enough to win them another title; however, the Raptors took multiple steps to ensure they continued to improve their lineup.
The Raptors continually made moves all season to bolster their roster. I wouldn’t considering adding Patrick McCaw or subtracting CJ Miles as groundbreaking movement, but the Raptors did make a major upgrade at the center position. In February, the Raptors sent Jonas Valanciunas and a couple secondary consolation prizes to the Memphis Grizzlies for Marc Gasol. They aquired a seasoned veteran for their lineup, and Gasol has played very well at times during the finals. Adding Leonard and Gasol while sacrificing DeRozen and Valanciunas showed one key trait of the Raptors: They were willing to do whatever it took.
Did the Raptors only get key contributions out of the pieces via trade? Of course not! Pascal Siakam has been electric this season and has my vote for most improved player. Siakam went from averaging 7.3 PPG last season to 16.9 PPG this season. He has proved himself to be a viable second option both in the regular season and in the playoffs. The Raptors rely on him to contribute in big ways, and he has delivered in many different situations. Fred VanVleet has also improved his game. While he wasn’t a huge factor against the Magic or 76ers, VanVleet turned it up against the Bucks and Warriors. This adds another shooter off the bench and provides another outlet for the Raptors to boost their scoring. So let’s examine just how impactful the Raptors supporting cast has been in the NBA Finals so far.
In game 1, the stars continued to score at high volumes. Curry, Thompson and Green combined for 65 of the Warriors 109 points. Leonard scored 23 for the Raptors, but he didn’t even have the biggest impact. Instead of Leonard, whom everyone was focused on, it was the entourage around him that propelled the Raptors past the Warriors. Siakam had 32 points and Gasol scored 20- these were both career highs for each of them in the playoffs. VanVleet added 15 points of the bench and Danny Green added 11. If you take Curry, Thompson and Leonard out of the equation, the Raptors win the game 95-54. The Raptors are more balanced, and it is showing just how critical that is.
Let’s examine game two as well. Yes, the Raptors lost, but it still important to see how the supporting players are much better on the Raptors. In game two, Leonard scored 34 points and lead all scorers, but look at the bench differences. Again, Leonard, Curry and Thompson are going to be high scorers, but it’s the players around them that ultimately dictate the game. The Raptors played 3 guys on the bench and got 31 points from them. The Warriors played six guys and got just 25 points. The bench from the Raptors greatly outperformed the Warriors bench in other categories besides points as well. Ultimately though, pieces like Siakam and Gasol that started didn’t perform well enough, and the Raptors fell victim to a game 2 loss at home.
Game three was different. The Warriors bench actually outscored the Raptors 26-17, but the Raptors’ starters exploded. Curry was the leading scorer with 47 points, but Toronto held the next five scoring spots. Kyle Lowry broke out for 23 points, which was his high for the series so far. The Raptors’ starters outscored the Warriors’ starters 106- 83, and the Raptors beat the defending champions at home by 14. In game four, the Raptors’ starters outscored the Warriors’ starters, and the Raptors also had the higher scoring bench; as a result, the Raptors again secured a double-digit win on the road. The Raptors may have less superstars, but they are a much more balanced team.
The Warriors have better players on paper. When you look at individual players in a power ranking, the tendency is going to be to side with the Warriors. The Raptors are a much more balanced team across the board, and it’s proving to be the deciding factor. If one player has an off night, they have other avenues to go down for scoring. Every player contributes and adds something. The Raptors are unlike the Warriors because they force you to at least respect each scorer. The Raptors know that although a player like Quinn Cook may make a three-pointer, there is a 95% chance he isn’t going to explode for 25 points. Multiple different players on the Raptors have shined and had huge nights; thus, you have to play balanced defense instead of more double teams and traps.
In an era where “super teams” are looked at as biggest one of the biggest problems plaguing sports, the Raptors are utilizing a unique approach. Instead of having multiple major studs and relying solely on them for 70-75% of all scoring, they spread the ball around and play great team basketball. Of course Leonard is taking the most shots- after all he is the best player- but it’s not nearly as lopsided as the Warriors. The Raptors built their team out of solid veterans and fundamental pieces; in turn, they show that balance can defeat even the brightest of stars. The Raptors are showing that under the right circumstances, a team of 7s and 8s will dethrone a team of 10s and 5s.