Kyle Lowry couldn’t stop smiling. Kawhi Leonard accepted a hug from Drake. The Raptors donned the Eastern Conference champions hats and bathed in confetti. But after displaying admirable concentration and calm to erase a 15-point second-half deficit, Toronto’s key figures were just as single-minded when it came time to celebrate.
Their collective focus remained on their upcoming series with the back-to-back champion Golden State Warriors rather than on their long-awaited postseason breakthrough.
“We’re not satisfied because we want to win the championship,” Raptors President Masai Ujiri said during the trophy presentation after a 100-94 series-clinching home victory.
Leonard, who finished with a game-high 27 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists, is returning to the Finals for the first time since 2014. During those five years, he has endured a first-round defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2015; a second-round exit against the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016; a sprained ankle that forced him from the 2017 Western Conference Finals against the Warriors; a lost 2017-18 season in which he played just nine games; and a blockbuster trade that landed him in Toronto last summer.
This year, the all-NBA forward acclimated to a new country, a new coach and a new cast of teammates before drilling a series-winning buzzer-beater in the second round and thoroughly outplaying MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo in the East finals. Leonard has averaged 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in the playoffs to state his case as the heir to LeBron James as the best player in basketball. Indeed, Ujiri used those exact words to describe Leonard moments after the Game 6 buzzer.
“I don’t care about being the best player,” Leonard said. “I want to be the best team. I’ve always said that. . . . We’re in the Finals, and we’re not done yet.”
Lowry added 17 points, five rebounds and eight assists, capping a series that will go a long way toward rewriting his postseason reputation. The five-time all-star point guard handily won his matchup game after game despite playing through a sprained left thumb, and he set up the highlight of the night by feeding Leonard for a left-handed dunk to cap a 26-3 run midway through the fourth quarter.
“Let the big dog eat,” Lowry said, explaining why he held the ball up on the break before dishing to Leonard. “I’m always going to look for the guy that I know can finish with the best of them.”
Lowry’s Raptors were eliminated by James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in each of the past three seasons, losses that led to Coach Dwane Casey’s firing and a trade that shipped out DeMar DeRozan, Lowry’s close friend. Along the way, Lowry’s individual play was often uneven, and the 33-year-old guard scored just five points in the closing loss of a second-round sweep last year.
“It means a lot,” Lowry said of his first Finals appearance. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years. I’ve run into one guy for a while. We were given the opportunity — [James] left — and we beat a really good team in Milwaukee. I’m going to savor the moment, but I’m not satisfied. Our goal is to win the NBA championship. We’re just going to keep getting better and plugging away.”
The Warriors represent a supreme challenge to the Raptors, and their Finals matchup is a quintessential case of “blue blood” vs. “new blood.” Golden State is seeking its fourth title under Coach Steve Kerr after becoming the first team to reach the Finals in five straight seasons since Bill Russell’s Celtics.
The Raptors, who joined the NBA as an expansion franchise in 1995, are the newcomers, although Leonard, guard Danny Green and forward Serge Ibaka bring Finals experience.
Although Golden State announced that all-NBA forward Kevin Durant is “unlikely” to be available when the Finals open in Toronto on Thursday, oddsmakers view the defending champs as strong favorites.
Stephen Curry and Draymond Green have led the Warriors to a 5-0 record since Durant strained his calf in the second round, and they will enjoy nine days of rest after sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals.
“They’re one of the greatest teams in history,” Raptors Coach Nick Nurse said. “They’ve got some big-time star power. They’ve got some great, athletic, energetic role guys and bench guys. They’ve got an experienced coach who’s won a lot, not only as a coach but as a player. So it will be a tall task, but we’ll try to figure it out.”
Toronto’s formula for pulling off an upset will rely on its home-court advantage, Durant’s questionable health, Leonard’s two-way brilliance and a defense that has ranked second in the playoffs.
The Raptors also will need to maintain their newfound composure, whether dealing with the Finals’ circuslike media atmosphere or withstanding the Warriors’ patented runs. Their hope is that Leonard, the guy who has brought them this far, will continue to lead the way.
“[Leonard] literally stays levelheaded all the time,” Lowry said. “He never gets up, he never gets down. . . . We have just played hard and stayed the course [all season]. We were working for April, May and June. And now we’ll start June.”