LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — For many reasons — primarily the loss of NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency — the Toronto Raptors entered the 2019-20 season as the least-heralded league champion since the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. Bookmakers in Las Vegas set the line for Raptors wins at 46.5, the lowest for a defending champion since at least 2001, according to ESPN Stats and Information research. The ESPN Forecast panel projected the Raptors for 45 wins, closer to missing the 2020 NBA playoffs than finishing atop the Eastern Conference again.
But all season, the Raptors defied the odds. After the free-agency losses, myriad games lost due to injury and a pandemic that put the season on hold for four months, Toronto set a franchise record for winning percentage and finished with the second-best record in the NBA — and still flew under the radar.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to pay much attention,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said with a wry smile when asked if the Raptors’ win over the Los Angeles Lakers in their first seeding game inside the NBA’s bubble would serve notice to the rest of the NBA. “They don’t ever seem to.”
The Raptors are used to that. A year after becoming the first team to win a title without a single lottery pick since the creation of the draft lottery in 1985, Toronto is still a team full of players who have exceeded expectations throughout their careers. Now, they’ve fought back from a 2-0 deficit to turn their conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics into a best-of-three series. And they enter Monday’s Game 5 with the same confidence they’ve shown all season long and a desire to prove they’re capable of keeping the Larry O’Brien Trophy north of the border.
“We’re still hungry,” forward Serge Ibaka said after Toronto’s Game 4 win. “But we still have work to do.”
“The first two guys I saw [after Leonard left] were Kyle [Lowry] and Fred [VanVleet], and they were both saying that 30 shots were open by Danny [Green] and Kawhi leaving, and they were ready to take them,” Nurse said. “It’s just kind of the way we approached it.”
The phrase “never underestimate the heart of a champion” — coined by another overlooked defending champ, the 1995 Houston Rockets — has become something of a meme throughout the season among Raptors fans on social media. The sentiment applies to this roster, which, top to bottom, is full of players who’ve been doubted or written off at some point in their career.
“You’ve heard from our guys,” Toronto general manager Bobby Webster said before the seeding games began. “They can’t wait to get out there, always have that chip on their shoulder, continue to prove everyone that doubted them.”
Lowry fell to the bottom of the first round and was traded twice before blossoming into an All-Star and potential future Hall of Famer in Toronto. VanVleet, his backcourt running mate, was an undersized, undrafted free agent; he is now in line for a huge payday this offseason as a free agent after repeatedly betting on himself. The Raptors’ primary backup, Norman Powell, was a second-round pick who has become one of the league’s best sixth men.
Pascal Siakam was another late first-round pick who multiple teams suggested would have to go to Europe as a draft-and-stash prospect, but he has turned into an All-Star for Toronto.
Even Nurse, the NBA’s reigning Coach of the Year, made multiple stops in Europe and the G League before eventually getting his first crack at an NBA head-coaching job last season.
That shared experience has created a group of people that has exceeded expectations, both collectively and independently. These individuals might have surprised those outside the organization with their success, but they’ve always believed they could succeed.
“We know that we have a winning team,” Powell said. “We know that we have a championship-caliber team. We have a lot of guys that had that feeling of what it’s like to win and be on that mountain top from last year that are back and are better and are playing well together.”
Before the March 11 shutdown, the Raptors’ issue wasn’t playing well together; it was playing together, period.
Toronto lost 219 combined team games due to injury, fifth most in the NBA and second among teams that reached the postseason (behind only the Portland Trail Blazers). Lowry missed 11 games in November and December with a fractured thumb. Ibaka was out during the same stretch with a sprained ankle. Shortly after they returned, Siakam missed 12 games with a strained groin. VanVleet missed 18 games with hamstring, knee and shoulder injuries. And center Marc Gasol played just once in the final 17 games leading up to the shutdown due to a hamstring injury.
All told, the Raptors’ playoff starting five of Lowry, VanVleet, Siakam, Gasol and Game 3 hero OG Anunoby — who has been healthy this season after missing the entire 2019 postseason due to an appendectomy — started just 17 of Toronto’s 64 games before the league’s hiatus.
Ask the Raptors, though, and they won’t tell you that they are surprised about their success, despite the loss of Leonard or the amount of games they’ve been forced to play without their full complement of talent. Instead, they chalk it up to the symbiotic nature of their group.
“The strength of the team, the beauty of basketball, [is that] this is not tennis,” Gasol said. “We’re not talking about Rafa Nadal or [Novak] Djokovic or Roger Federer — or [Canadian Milos] Raonic. We’re talking about basketball. It’s a team sport. It’s how well you work as a team. It’s a team effort. It always will be. Doesn’t matter how much we try to singularize the game.”
Part of the continuity and team dynamic that exists within the Raptors comes from how long their core has been together. Aside from Gasol, who was acquired in the middle of last season, and undrafted rookie Terence Davis, the other six players who make up Toronto’s rotation — Lowry, VanVleet, Siakam, Ibaka, Anunoby and Powell — have been with the team for three or more seasons. Nurse is only in his second season as head coach, but he was in Toronto for several more as an assistant before that.
That kind of continuity not only creates friendships that otherwise are rarely formed; it also creates a synergy on the court that allows the Raptors to adjust on the fly in ways other teams are unable to replicate.
“There’s a lot of special guys on this team,” Nurse said. “There’s some specialness to them individually, and then there’s that little thing called chemistry and effort and toughness that, again, I think make us a special team.”
THE RAPTORS STILL lack one key component that nearly every NBA champion has: a top-five player. Siakam succeeded as the team’s star and the night-in, night-out focus of opposing defenses throughout the regular season, but he has looked overmatched in that role in this series against the Celtics. After averaging 22.9 points per game during the regular season, Siakam is putting up 17.3 PPG on 38.6% shooting through four games versus Boston — including a dismal 2-for-13 effort from 3-point range in Game 4.
“Sometimes you are going to make shots, and sometimes you aren’t,” Siakam said. “I have to understand that I just have to keep doing the other things. That is something that I am focusing on, and I am not worried about makes and misses. I am worried about impacting the game in all different ways.”
In Game 4, Siakam pulled down 11 rebounds, tying Lowry for the game high. And one game earlier, he was a team-best plus-12 in Toronto’s 1-point win. So to his point, he has been able to impact the game in ways that go beyond scoring.
Those little things, and the Raptors’ collective belief in themselves, have proved to be enough to at least give Toronto a chance. The Raptors were 0.5 seconds away from going down 3-0, a hole from which no NBA team has ever recovered. Instead, Anunoby made the team’s first buzzer-beater since Leonard’s Game 7 shot against the Philadelphia 76ers a year ago. Then Lowry, VanVleet and Siakam played the entire second half to will Toronto to a Game 4 victory.
The Raptors were nearly counted out against Boston, but they’re used to that. Before Leonard arrived, their postseason reputation was a team that always lost Game 1 and was tormented by LeBron James. Last year, with James no longer in the East, the Raptors found themselves trailing both in the second round against the 76ers and in the conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, before rallying to win those series and dethrone the Golden State Warriors in the Finals.
Now, a year after becoming the first team from outside the United States to win an NBA title, the Raptors are trying to make history again, as only the second team ever to overcome a 2-0 deficit in consecutive postseasons — joining those 1995 Rockets, who used their comeback in the second round as a springboard to a second consecutive title.
“We know who we are and that we’re good enough to do it and that we’re tough,” VanVleet said. “It’s going to be hard to beat us four times. If you can do that, we’ll shake your hand and congratulate you. But I think we all like our chances.”