Having come up short in recent years in the playoffs, Toronto made some big moves this season that paid off spectacularly.
A year ago, the Raptors were in a state of flux. Bounced out of the NBA playoffs yet again by a familiar foe in LeBron James, they seemed stuck in a situation where they were good, but just not quite good enough.
So, Masai Ujiri, the team’s president of basketball operations and general manager, decided to make changes. Big changes, too.
Out went the most successful coach in team history and also one of the franchise’s most beloved players. In came a relatively untried name on the bench and a disgruntled star player who had barely been seen on a court in the previous 12 months.
What followed was a remarkable season that climaxed with Toronto dethroning the Warriors to win the first championship in the franchise’s 24-year existence.
Here, Omnisport picks out some of the key moments from the past 12 months following the Raptors’ impressive run to the title.
MAY/JUNE 2018: CASEY CLOSED! NURSE STEPS UP
Dwane Casey was the newly crowned NBA Coach of the Year who had just led the Raptors to 59 wins in the regular season, good enough to be top seeds in the East.
Crucially, though, they were not good enough to progress beyond James and the Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs.
Just four days after being on the wrong end of a series sweep, Casey was fired. It was deemed by many at the time to be a harsh call — no coach had won more games in the franchise’s history, including three successive seasons with 50 or more victories.
Mike Budenholzer was rumored to a potential replacement (he ended up in Milwaukee instead), but Ujiri went with an internal candidate to fill the post. Nick Nurse was well traveled in his coaching career and had served as an assistant in Toronto, yet his promotion to the top job — the first time he had been in such a role in the league — was a calculated gamble.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 29, 2018
JULY 2018: HI KAWHI – FAREWELL DEMAR
With his relationship with the Spurs beyond repair, Kawhi Leonard requested to be traded.
Leonard eventually got his wish, only the Spurs struck a deal with a team that was unlikely to be too high, if appearing at all, on the player’s list of most desirable destinations.
To get a former NBA Finals MVP (and Danny Green), the Raptors moved Jakob Poeltl, a protected first-round pick and DeMar DeRozan, who was not impressed to serve as compensation in the move for potentially a one-year rental, considering Leonard’s contract situation.
“Be told one thing & outcome another. Can’t trust em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out quit for a little bit of nothing…soon you’ll understand… Don’t disturb…” DeRozan said in an Instagram story prior to the deal becoming official.
Still, the franchise who had drafted him with the ninth pick in 2009 had decided the time was right to move on.
FEBRUARY 2019: UJIRI MAKES HIS MARC
While Nurse experimented with lineups and Leonard’s minutes were carefully managed over the course of the regular season, Ujiri decided to add another piece to the roster.
Prior to the NBA trade deadline, Toronto sent former first-round pick Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, and also a 2024 second-round pick to the Grizzlies to get Marc Gasol.
The Spanish center was acquired with the postseason in mind. He was an upgrade in terms of outside shooting, defensive stability and, perhaps most importantly of all, playmaking abilities.
Gasol’s presence proved to be crucial when the Raptors came up against the 76ers, as he went toe-to-toe with fellow big man Joel Embiid in a positional battle that demonstrated just why he had been acquired.
MAY 2019: LEONARD DELIVERS MEMORABLE FINISH
After the now customary first-game loss to start the playoffs, Toronto comfortably dispatched the Magic, setting up a second-round clash with the 76ers.
The seven-game series ebbed and flowed throughout, resulting in a dramatic decider at Scotiabank Arena.
Tied at 90 in the closing seconds, Leonard produced an iconic NBA moment with a game-winning shot from the corner, despite being under pressure from Ben Simmons and with Embiid attempting to block his attempt with an outstretched arm.
The ball hit the rim several times before eventually dropping through the hoop, as looks of uncertainty inside the venue were quickly transformed into smiles amid the celebrations. The Raptors were in the conference finals for a second time.
— NBA Canada (@NBACanada) May 13, 2019
MAY 2019: THE BUCKS STOPPED HERE
A battle between the top two seeds in the East saw the Bucks — who finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA — take the opening two games, both staged in Milwaukee.
Leonard suffered a leg injury in Game 3 yet proceeded to play 52 minutes as the contest went to double overtime, with the Raptors seemingly fighting for their playoff lives on home court.
Kyle Lowry fouled out during the fourth quarter, but Leonard and Pascal Siakam came up with big plays down the stretch, the former snatching a loose ball against the odds to set up an easy dunk before his teammate crucially blocked a Brook Lopez attempt.
It was a huge win, one that delivered a much-needed shot of confidence. Having figured out a method to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo, they won four straight against the Bucks to reach the Finals.
The rest, as they say, is history.