The 2018-19 NBA season came to an end Thursday night, as the Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors by the final score of 114-110 to end the NBA Finals in six games. The championship is the first for the Raptors franchise, and the run to this point began shortly after the end of the 2017-18 season. Team president Masai Ujiri made some major moves, firing Dwane Casey (the NBA Coach of the Year) and replacing him with Nick Nurse, then executing a trade with San Antonio that added Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the roster (and sent cornerstone DeMar DeRozan in the opposite direction).
Add in the in-season moves, most notably the deadline deal for Marc Gasol, and there’s no denying the fact that Ujiri and the Raptors were “all in” on chasing a championship this season. The goal was reached Thursday night, and the contributions came from many as opposed to one or two stars.
As for Golden State, Thursday marked the end of an era as Game 6 was the final game at Oracle Arena. The franchise will move across the bay to San Francisco next season, and the question now is whether or not this was the end of an era with regards to the makeup of the roster. Free agency stands to have a major impact on the Warriors moving forward, with Kevin Durant having a player option and Klay Thompson set to be a free agent. Both players suffered injuries during the Finals, with Thompson injuring his left knee on a dunk attempt late in the third quarter Thursday night. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Thompson tore the ACL in his left knee.
How will those injuries, with Durant undergoing surgery to repair his ruptured right Achilles tendon on Tuesday, impact the Warriors’ approach to the offseason? That will be one of the biggest questions hanging over the league as the focus shifts to the NBA Draft and free agency. Below is a look at what happened during Thursday’s season finale in Oakland.
Kyle Lowry takes control early, setting the tone for Toronto
Kawhi Leonard is Toronto’s best player — and maybe the best player in the entire NBA — but more often than not it is Kyle Lowry who serves as the team’s barometer. When the longest-tenured Raptor is assertive offensively and plays well, Toronto is that much tougher to beat. When he’s quiet offensively the Raptors can still win games, but the task is significantly more difficult. Thursday night Lowry came out of the gates firing, making his first four shot attempts and scoring Toronto’s first 11 points. Despite having to deal with some foul trouble during the third quarter Lowry played 42 minutes, scoring 26 points (9-of-16 FGs, 4-of-6 FTs) with ten assists, seven rebounds, three steals and four 3-pointers.
After scoring a total of 20 points in the first two games of the NBA Finals, Lowry scored 18 points or more in three of the final four games. His ten assists Thursday were the most Lowry had in a postseason game since Game 3 of the first round, when he matched that number in a win over the Magic in Orlando. During the regular season, Lowry was a top-40 player in nine-category leagues and a top-30 player in eight-category leagues. Heading into the offseason Toronto has some situations to address in free agency, which will in turn impact just how effective Lowry is in 2019-20.
Lowry was one of four Raptors to score at least 22 points, with Pascal Siakam also tallying 26 (with ten rebounds, three assists, one steal, one block and three 3-pointers), and Leonard (six rebounds, three assists, two steals, one block and one three-pointer) and Fred VanVleet scoring 22 points apiece. Siakam shot 10-of-17 from the field in his 46 minutes on the court, showing why he was named a finalist for the league’s Most Improved Player award.
As for Leonard, he made history on two fronts Thursday night. He’s now one of three players in NBA history to win a Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP award with two different franchises, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James being the others. Also, Leonard is the only player to have done this on teams in different conferences (Milwaukee was in the West when Abdul-Jabbar won NBA Finals MVP in 1971). Given the injury status of Kevin Durant, Leonard will be the best available free agent on the market should he opt out of the final year of his deal as many expect him to do.
“Game 6 Klay” shows up, but his night ends prematurely
Some of Klay Thompson’s best postseason performances have come in pivotal Game 6 matchups, so it came as no surprise that he was at his best with the Warriors facing elimination. With no Durant and the Raptors sending two (and at times three) players at Stephen Curry, Thompson needed to step up and he did just that. In 32 minutes he shot 8-of-12 from the field and 10-of-10 from the foul line, scoring a game-high 30 points with five rebounds, two steals and four 3-pointers in 32 minutes. But his night came to an early end, as he landed awkwardly after being fouled on a dunk attempt by Danny Green with 2:22 remaining in the third quarter. After being helped up the tunnel for further evaluation Thompson was back out on the court, due in large part to the NBA rule on players who are unable to shoot their free throws after suffering an injury on a foul.
Unless the injury occurred on a Flagrant 2 foul, not attempting the free throws would rule out any possibility of a return to the game. With that being the case Thompson was back on the court attempting his free throws, making both before exiting a couple seconds later. He would not return, and as noted above the injury suffered was a torn ACL. Of course the timeline for Thompson (who also missed Game 3 with a hamstring injury) is unknown at this point, but he’s the third Warrior to suffer a serious injury during the Finals. There was Durant, and also Kevon Looney suffered a non-displaced fracture in his chest earlier in the series.
Kevon Looney replaces Durant in the starting five, plays 27 minutes
Looney, who played through pain after missing Game 3, got the start Thursday in place of the injured Durant. He would play 27 minutes, finishing with six points (3-of-7 FGs), four assists, three rebounds, one steal and one blocked shot. The third-year center, who will be a free agent this summer, was Golden State’s best option at the five for the majority of this series. DeMarcus Cousins, who made his return in Game 1 after suffering a torn quadriceps during the first round of the postseason, struggled with rust and inconsistency during the Finals. Andrew Bogut didn’t have much of an impact in this series, as this wasn’t a particularly good matchup for him given the ability of the Toronto bigs to play on the perimeter. He played three minutes in the first quarter Thursday and did not see any more action after that ineffective stint on the court.
Going back to Cousins, he played 19 minutes and posted a stat line of 12 points (4-of-9 FGs, 4-of-7 FTs), five rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot. But he had his issues on defense, and as a result the Warriors went with a zone look at times Thursday night. The move to zone served as the spark for a 7-0 Golden State run during the first quarter, but this wasn’t something that the Warriors could call on every time that Cousins was on the court. Toronto was eventually able to figure out the zone, and down the stretch the Raptors were able to create mismatches that players such as Leonard and Fred VanVleet (22 points, two rebounds, one steal and five 3-pointers) were able to exploit.
Toronto brings back the box-and-one, keeps Stephen Curry in check
The Raptors used the box-and-1 scheme that raised some eyebrows earlier in the series, calling upon this look even more after Thompson suffered his knee injury, with Curry being the focus of Toronto’s defensive effort. There were times when Curry was double-teamed, and there were even a couple possessions when he was essentially being defended by three Raptors. Curry finished the game 6-of-17 from the field and 6-of-6 from the foul line, scoring 21 points with seven assists, three rebounds, two steals, one blocked shot and three 3-pointers (on 11 attempts).
The attention paid to Curry opened things up for some of his teammates, most notably Thompson prior to his injury, and Andre Iguodala also had a productive night offensively. He shot 9-of-15 from the field and 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, scoring 22 points to go along with two rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot.
Draymond Green finished the night with a triple-double, as he accounted for 11 points, 19 rebounds, 13 assists, three steals, two blocks and one three-pointer, but he also had a game-high eight turnovers. Not only did Toronto do a good job of contesting many of Curry’s looks, but their defensive rotations impacted Golden State’s ability to move the ball and find quality looks for other players. Toronto had a good night offensively, with five of the six players that scored reaching double figures, but the defense had just as big of an impact on the outcome.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise given what VanVleet and Ibaka have been able to provide at various points in the postseason, but those two combined to outscore the Golden State bench by a 37-20 margin. VanVleet scored 22 points and Ibaka added 15 (7-of-12 FGs) with three rebounds and two assists in 22 minutes. On the surface he looked to be a good matchup for DeMarcus Cousins, but Ibaka held his own when faced with the task of defending the bruising Warriors big man. What role Ibaka plays next season is up in the air, as Marc Gasol (three points, nine rebounds and four assists) has a player option for the 2019-20 season.
If Gasol opts in, does Toronto stay with the current rotation with Ibaka coming off the bench? Or would it be a situation that depends on matchups, as was the case when Gasol first arrived in Toronto? As for VanVleet he should once again be Kyle Lowry’s backup, with the 2019-20 season being the last on his current contract. How much he has the ball in his hands to create offensively will be impacted by Kawhi Leonard’s decision, as he’s expected to opt out and become the most sought-after free agent on the market this summer thanks to Durant’s Achilles injury.
Washington is reportedly preparing an "prolific" offer for Masai Ujiri
Raptors team president Masai Ujiri was not afraid to make eye-opening moves after last season, and the willingness to do so put the franchise in a position to win its first NBA title. The Leonard trade was a gamble given the fact that he only played in nine games last season, but Ujiri bet on his entire franchise being able to provide the environment that would allow the NBA Finals MVP to flourish. That bet paid off, and other teams have taken notice.
Shortly after the Raptors received the Larry O’Brien Trophy from commissioner Adam Silver, it was reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that the Washington Wizards are preparing an offer for Ujiri in an attempt to have him lead their front office. Per the report, the deal could approach $10 million in annual salary, and it may also include a prominent position in the Monumental Sports and Entertainment company that oversees both the Wizards and Washington Capitals.
Ujiri has two years remaining on his current contract with the Raptors, and there’s also the hurdle of receiving approval from Raptors ownership to speak with him that Washington will need to clear. He’s been highly successful as an executive, first sparking the turnaround in Denver before building a championship team in Toronto.