Should the Toronto Raptors’ First NBA Title Get an Asterisk?

Some are wondering whether the Toronto Raptors would have lost if not for Golden State's injuries.

June 14, 2019

By Jusneel Mahal / Photo: Toronto Raptors Official Instagram

For the first time in the history of the NBA, a Canadian basketball team has won the NBA championship. The previously unthinkable has occurred. A Toronto Raptors team that many fans and experts doubted before the start of the season has now defeated a Golden State Warriors team that has been labeled the team of the decade.

The past few seasons felt seemingly predictable and borderline anti-climatic, as they have ended with multiple Warriors’ championships. This year, it appeared inevitable that Golden State would win their fourth championship in five season. They had a stacked team filled with superstars and former MVP’s. There were (in my opinion) the two greatest shooters of all time Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, a former defensive player of the year in Draymond Green, and arguably the best player in the league in Kevin Durant. Golden State had previously destroyed the Cleveland Cavillers in the last two finals and coming into this year’s final many NBA pundits expected that they ride mostly unchallenged to a third consecutive title.

But things changed when Kevin Durant injured his left calf in Game 5 of the second round series against the Houston Rockets. Questions started to swirl. But even those “can they win without their best player?” queries changed to “do they even need Durant?” after the Warriors swept the Portland Trailblazers in the Western Conference Final en route to the team’s fifth consecutive finals trip.

Before the finals started many believed the Raptors had a shot if Durant didn’t play at all in the series. But it was reported that there was a strong chance that Durant would return halfway through. I have been following and watching these two teams intensely throughout the season and I came to the conclusion that the Warriors would defeat the Raptors in six games. I made this prediction assuming that a healthy Durant would eventually return and overpower a Raptors team with little finals experience (excluding former champions Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green).

It was hard for me to choose the Raptors in this series because their supporting cast was extremely inconsistent in the previous three rounds. Despite Kawhi’s brilliance, I couldn’t go against simple math. The Warriors had three superstars and the Raptors had one.

It’s funny how the narrative changes game to game in a series. After the Raptors’ impressive game one victory, the storylines were centred on how the Warriors desperately needed Durant. After the Warriors’ Game 2 win, sports bloggers were writing on the brilliance of the Splash Brothers (Thompson and Curry) and how the Raptors were doomed.

Then, in game three, Thompson strains his hamstring, which causes him to miss the next game. At this point, the media started to question why Durant had yet to return to action. I heard some pundits question if the Warriors medical staff were being too conservative, while others thought Durant didn’t want to risk any structural damage to himself before his impending free agency.

With the Warriors eventually being down three games to one, the news came out that Durant was finally cleared to play. Even being up by two games in the series, many Raptors fans (like myself) were nervous about Durant’s impact on the rest of the series. In Game 5, Durant returned with vengeance by making shots right away. The Warriors started off hot from the three-point line in the first quarter, and they looked like the dominant team that we’ve seen throughout the season.

But all of Durant’s initial baskets were spot-up, stationary shots — he wasn’t taking anyone off of the dribble, which we’re accustomed to seeing from him. The first time he actually took a defender one-on-one was in the second quarter and that’s when he re-injured himself and blew out his Achilles.

Boom!

Just like that, Durant was out of the game and the series. But somehow the Warriors pulled out the victory and, with the series turning back to Oakland, a new narrative started to gain steam: “The Raptors are going choke.”

Game 6 was intense. Klay Thompson was unstoppable and it appeared that he was going to will his team to a Game 7 berth. But everything changed late in the third quarter when Thompson landed awkwardly on his knee after being fouled by Raptor’s Danny Green on a missed layup. Thompson tore his ACL and was taken out of the game after making two gutsy free-throws. Jump to the fourth quarter where the Raptors shut down a Warriors team that appeared to only have one source of offence in the form of Steph Curry.

The Raptors knew that they would win if they shut down Curry, so they continually threw a double team at him in the front-court. Curry appeared exhausted and couldn’t gather enough steam to propel his team to victory. The second half belonged to Fred VanVleet, who an array hit clutch three-pointers in the fourth quarter. The Raptors barely pulled out the win and the championship over a team that missed their first and third best scoring options. And, of course, with the Raptors victory came a new narrative…”Did the Warriors injuries tarnish the Raptors title?”

Even without having Thompson for game three and a healthy Durant throughout the series, the Warriors still pushed the Raptors to six games. It’s fair to question if the Raptors would have beaten a healthy Warriors squad, but saying that this title has an asterisk next to it is putting things a bit too far for me.

The Warriors dynasty has now come full circle — five years ago they won the title in six games against an injured Cavaliers team that was missing it’s second and third best players (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love). Now they lost to the Raptors in six games without two of their best players. But for some reason, pundits and fans didn’t put an asterisk next to that Warriors title.

The Raptors have grown accustomed to their team being under-appreciated by the mainstream, American sports media, so this “asterisk” narrative doesn’t shock me. Besides, Raptors fans should care less of what people think. A win is a win, and the Raptors beat a Warriors team that still had three all-stars on it.

Fifty years from now no one is going to remember the players that didn’t play in these games, they are going to remember the team that won it all.

Congratulations Toronto Raptors fans, your team won it all.

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