By Adam Clements
Adam is the senior basketball writer at The Unsportsmen - You can follow Adam on Instagram for dope NBA content.
Living, Dying and Just Barely Surviving in the NBA
In most sports, simply being there on the day just isn’t enough. Having to outperform your adversaries is paramount, but sometimes, being the last one standing is just a matter of resilience and strength in the face of adversity.
As ever, this year in the NBA, the storylines have raged on throughout this playoff run with mighty conviction, with this year’s Finals series the final step in a road to what could be one of the most intriguing and league defining free agency periods in league history. No one could predict, however, just how explosive the consequences of this year’s Finals series would be on the upcoming free agency period, throwing the league into disarray as plans made years in the making are now under threat.
The 2019 NBA finals was a matchup of heavyweights, a 10 round slug fest that had the promise to go 12 rounds before the referee stopped the fight. At no stage did either team get a firm grip on the ascendancy. Even as the clock ticked down ever closer to zero in game 6, so many wild turns have been taken on this road that although a winner appeared fairly clear cut, there was not a drop of celebratory Moet spilt prematurely. Both teams had been to hell and back, beaten to a pulp by the sheer brutality of this series but not willing to throw the towel in no matter the situation in front of them.
Just when we thought a defining moment had turned this series in one direction, another fork in the road was never too far away. Every game has had its moment, with the Golden State Warriors 18-0 in Game 2 looking like the tipping point for the entire series, before Kawhi and co stole 2 games at Oakland as part of an unprecedented run of form to stretch out to a 3-1 series lead. Of course, Game 5’s big moment was Kevin Durant’s devastating Achilles injury, but again, when one team looked to be pulling away, the other team hooped the lasso and reeled them in.
In the deciding Game 6, Klay Thompson’s seemingly innocuous landing after being fouled on a fast break looked fairly routine, but the writhing pain that set in when he hit the deck was obvious. The Warriors iron man throughout this historic 5-season stretch, Klay hit his 2 free throws to put his final tally at 30 points in front of an adoring Oracle Arena crowd, before heading back to the locker room to get assessed. He never returned, diagnosed with a devastating ACL injury, and thereby went the Warriors season. It was just a matter of how long they could hang on.
In hindsight, it all seems so clear cut. With no Durant and no Thompson, and a Warriors 2nd unit that are just not to the same standard as their hungry opposition, it should have been a cakewalk to the finish line for Kawhi and his international team on the brink of history. The Warriors weren’t done yet though. Spurred on by the crowd and the siege mentality of being underdogs for the first time in recent memory, the Warriors so nearly pulled it out.
In Game 6 in particular, we saw the class of both teams and the championship mentality of the Warriors players especially, with Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green having enormous games. Iggy clocking up 20 points for only the second time this season and Green showing what going on a shred after Christmas can do for your hoop habits. It just wasn’t enough, with 2 of their biggest offensive threats off the floor, and an unbelievable contribution from Raptors players across the board. After being benched during Game 5 for poor play, most players would bow their heads and roll over, fading into the background in the series. Pascal Siakam did exactly the opposite, clocking up 46 massive minutes for a team whose sole superstar was abhorrently exhausted, while Fred VanVleet, sans his 2 front teeth, ratcheted up 22 points on 5/10 3 pointers.
It was this blue collar, do it for each other mentality that shone through for the Raptors, not just in the NBA Finals but the playoffs in general. As was typical in this series, the final minutes were chaotic, with the entire building shaking from the screams of a desperate fan base knowing this was their team’s last chance to put one more roadblock up in the long road to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. While the Raptors scrambled desperately for 3 quarters to gain back a lead, the end was nigh once they took the lead, and while Kawhi Leonard wasn’t at his best, completely spent from 2 months of dragging his team through the muddied playoff waters on a bad knee, the Raptors were just where they needed to be.
This finals series was not just a matter of being there on the day. The Raptors simply outlasted every team they came across this post season. The sprightly Orlando Magic knocked them back a notch in Round 1, before Philly took them all the way to the brink in Round 2 (editors note: For Philadephia - what could have been … That’s enough to talk yourself in to the deep luxury tax), with the Raptors literally only one bad bounce away from a disastrous 2nd Round exit. An unforgettable stretch of 4 wins in a row against the 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks, a team who up until that point had not lost back to back all season, gave the Warriors an idea of just what a fight their new challengers from the East would bring. At every new turn and fork in this road to the Championship, the Raptors just kept answering the call. They didn’t so much win, as much as they outlasted a Warriors outfit that ran out of bodies and ran out of time."
Many saw the end of the Warriors dynasty as we know it after this season, but no one could predict just how devastating and shape shifting it could be for the entire league.
This was a series for the ages, a scrap to the very end. Kawhi, the very very nearly unanimous Finals MVP (save for 1 vote for the toothless Fred VanVleet), has now ended two of the NBA’s modern dynasties, firstly the Big 3 of Miami and now a team that many consider one of the best teams in NBA history. He has done what many considered impossible, and looking at how he was limping around throughout these playoffs, of all the players that went down with injury, he seemed most likely to succumb at any moment.
But like the Raptors, he has survived and made it to the top of the mountain. And no one can ever take that away from him.
The Toronto Raptors are your 2018/19 NBA Champions.
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