NBA Finals 2019

It's lights up in the north

The Toronto Raptors celebrate with the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy after defeating two-time defending champions Golden State Warriors 114-110 in Game Six for a 4-2 victory in the NBA Finals.
The Toronto Raptors celebrate with the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy after defeating two-time defending champions Golden State Warriors 114-110 in Game Six for a 4-2 victory in the NBA Finals. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Bet on Leonard pays off as rookie coach Nurse lifts underachievers to NBA summit

OAKLAND • After 26 years of far more fizzle than fizz, Canada's championship drought is over.

The Toronto Raptors, riding the magic of a generational star backed by a rookie coach and a dogged supporting crew, topped the two-time defending champions Golden State Warriors 114-110 in Game 6 of the Finals on Thursday, clinching their maiden National Basketball Association title with a 4-2 series victory.

"This is what I play basketball for," Kawhi Leonard said at the Oracle Arena after winning his second Finals Most Valuable Player Award, becoming only the third to do so with two franchises, after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James.

"This is what I work hard for... I'm glad to see it all pay off."

By taking the crown, the Raptors ended a stretch of more than two decades without a major championship title for a Canadian team, dating back to 1993 when National Hockey League side Montreal Canadiens clinched the Stanley Cup and the Toronto Blue Jays won Major League Baseball's World Series that same year.

Leonard has been the driving force behind the Raptors' triumph.

THE X-FACTOR

We're a hard-working team, and Nick has that persona and that ethic that really translate to everybody and the whole organisation.

MASAI UJIRI, Raptors' president, crediting the coach for transforming a diligent side into a strong, winning outfit.

His 732 points this post-season puts him behind only Michael Jordan at 759 and 748 racked up by James in a single campaign, while he finished with 30-plus points in 14 play-off games to rank fourth after Jordan (16), Hakeem Olajuwon (16) and Kobe Bryant (15).

The All-Star's status in the NBA was far from certain when the season began, having missed most of the previous campaign with the San Antonio Spurs owing to injury and internal friction as rumours swirled around his character.

In response, Leonard rose as a Raptor supernova with his remarkable athleticism, scoring versatility, dogged defence and even-keelness mindset.

But coach Nick Nurse also has to be credited for their historic triumph. He was not the clear choice to lead the Raptors when the team fired Dwane Casey just before he was named Coach of the Year.

After all, Nurse had been coaching for three decades, but never as the head coach of an NBA team.

Yet he has always had a knack for winning, either at the American collegiate level, in the minor leagues or in Europe and he showed he was far from overawed, improving their scoring, especially from long range.

Team president Masai Ujiri said: "We're a hard-working team, and Nick has that persona and that ethic that really translate to everybody and the whole organisation."

The Nigerian executive also had the gumption last summer to swop DeMar DeRozan, the face of the franchise for a decade, for Leonard, taking the risk that the latter would be a free agent in a year.

It transformed an underachieving Toronto side into a force to be reckoned with, with the trade also bringing vital experience in the form of veteran guard Danny Green and was followed by the later acquisition of All-Star centre Marc Gasol.

Together with mainstay Kyle Lowry and the continued growth of two gems unearthed from the college game - forward Pascal Siakam and reserve guard Fred VanVleet - the moves gave Nurse the ability to deploy multiple combinations to smother the small-ball line-ups that have fuelled much of the Warriors' success over the past five years.

"It worked out," Leonard told ESPN during the on-court trophy presentations. "It worked out."

Of his future, he added: "I'm about to enjoy this (win) with my teammates and coaches, and I'll think about that later."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2019, with the headline 'It's lights up in the north'. Print Edition | Subscribe