'New blood' Raptors ready to usurp Western royalty

The Raptor's acquisition of forward Kawhi Leonard (holding the NBA Eastern Conference trophy) this season has been vindicated with Toronto now fighting to win their first NBA Finals in franchise history. PHOTO: REUTERS
The Raptor's acquisition of forward Kawhi Leonard (holding the NBA Eastern Conference trophy) this season has been vindicated with Toronto now fighting to win their first NBA Finals in franchise history. PHOTO: REUTERS

TORONTO • Twenty-four seasons, 1,920 regular-season games, 18 play-off series, 99 play-off games.

It took until the 100th post-season game in franchise history for the Toronto Raptors to seal their first NBA Finals appearance.

Success has been fleeting for the only National Basketball Association franchise in Canada.

Vince Carter gave the Raptors their first taste of national attention during the All-Star weekend in 2000.

But in 2004, he demanded a trade and ended a golden era before it even started.

Chris Bosh was the next star in line, but he managed just two first-round exits in his seven seasons, before leaving in free agency in 2010 for the Miami Heat.

DeMar DeRozan blossomed into a star during his nine years with the team, but team president Masai Ujiri grew tired of their annual play-off flame-outs, and last summer traded the one player who had declared his desire to remain a Raptor for life.

That trade sent a stunned DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard, who was one year away from free agency.

Leonard was a considerable risk, but he also gave the Raptors exactly what they needed in an Eastern Conference finally freed from the dominance of LeBron James, who joined the Los Angeles Lakers - a two-way star capable of being the best player in any play-off series.

The trade has been validated in every way during Leonard's historic post-season run, which gave the league its first Game 7 series-clinching buzzer beater, against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round.

He is already third among the franchise's career post-season scorers, trailing only DeRozan and Kyle Lowry after recording 30-plus points in 11 play-off games this term.

After years of trying to break through, the Raptors can now call themselves the best team in the Eastern Conference.

They are four wins away from a maiden championship title, and tomorrow, the Finals will start in Canada for the first time in history.

With their "big-time star power", two-time defending NBA champions Golden State Warriors represent the supreme challenge, a quintessential case of "blue blood" versus "new blood".

They are also seeking their fourth title under coach Steve Kerr, after becoming the first team to reach the Finals in five straight seasons since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics.

But the Raptors have a chance to make history for not just the franchise, but for the city of Toronto - whose two other major sports franchises are in the midst of championship droughts.

Major League Baseball team Blue Jays last won the World Series in 1993, while National Hockey League side Maple Leafs have not lifted the Stanley Cup since 1967.

However, with home court advantage, Leonard's two-way brilliance, a defence that has ranked second in the play-offs and Kevin Durant's questionable health - the Warriors forward has been ruled out of Game 1 - there may still be one more chapter written for Toronto.

NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2019, with the headline ''New blood' Raptors ready to usurp Western royalty'. Print Edition | Subscribe