The 2019 NBA Finals, Told Through 12 Moments

We’ll remember the history that was made, we’ll remember the teams, we’ll remember the twists and turns, and we’ll remember these moments.

For the first time in four years, we got an NBA Finals that didn’t pit LeBron James against the Golden State Warriors. After years of playoff disappointment, the Toronto Raptors made a franchise-altering trade in the off-season, then finally broke through their playoff demons, earning the franchise’s first ever trip to the NBA Finals and the right to challenge the defending champion Warriors, who were without 2 x Finals MVP Kevin Durant.

For years, ESPN Senior Writer Zach Lowe has referred to the Toronto Raptors as the Toronto Drakes. It was tongue-in-cheek, but this year’s playoffs, particularly during the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, saw Drake become a pseudo-mascot for the Raptors. Where broadcasts would traditionally cut to the team mascot after a game-changing shot or rim-rocking dunk, they instead showed Drake in (front of) his courtside seat, going through his emotions, jumping up and down, hooting and hollering.

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(Image via: Bleacher Report)

He caused a stir during the Conference Finals when he gave Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse a mid-game shoulder-rub. ESPN would later report that the league office called the Raptors about Drake’s antics. And yes, they are antics. However, showing up to Game 1 in a Dell Curry Raptors jersey was a deft move. That one single fashion choice can be read as a shot at Stephen Curry (who is Dell’s son), or a homage to Dell Curry (who did play for the Raptors), or a reflection of his relationships with both sides, or just a flex of his Raptors fandom with a deep pull from his jersey collection. #Respect.

Before Game 1, there were six players in NBA Finals history who scored 30 points or more with a FG% of at least 80%: Shaquille O’Neal, Toni Kukoc, Michael Jordan, Adrian Dantley, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. After Game 1, Pascal Siakam, the consensus front-runner for this season’s Most Improved Player award, added his name to that list, with a 32-point performance on 14/17 shooting from the field.

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(Image: NBA)

The Warriors came out with every intention of focusing their defense on Kawhi Leonard and making Toronto’s other players beat them. That’s exactly what happened, personified by Pascal Siakam getting the best of former-Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green throughout the night. Siakam was aggressive from the tip, attacking the basket with the ferociousness of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and everything was falling for him. During one stretch of the game, Siakam made ten consecutive baskets, then topped it off with a prayer of a flip-shot over Draymond in the 4th quarter. The Raptors would win 118–109.

Game 2 was a grind. While it looked like Stephen Curry was possibly dealing with an illness, Klay Thompson came out firing on all cylinders. DeMarcus Cousins was inserted into the starting lineup after coming off the bench in Game 1, his first since tearing his left quad against the L.A. Clippers in the quarterfinals, and he would be the difference for Golden State, making his presence felt on the glass and picking the Raptors apart with passes.

Steph came alive to end the first half, and the Warriors would start the second with a 18–0 run. The Raptors would show their resilience, however, with a combination of timely offensive rebounding and the stout half-court defense that stumped the Milwaukee Bucks in the Conference Finals. The game was still in-reach, and even more so after Klay exited the game, which came after already losing Kevon Looney earlier.

The Warriors’ offense stalled as the game winded down, with the Raptors breaking out a rarely-seen Box-And-1 defensive scheme to try to contain Steph. They would succeed in doing that with the game on the line, forcing him to pass the ball, only for it to end up in the hands of former-Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, alone on the left wing. He would drain the dagger, securing a 1–1 split with the series moving to Oakland, and providing the world with another great meme.

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Despite losing home-court advantage, Toronto entered Game 3 with, perhaps, the biggest advantage: health. With Klay Thompson sitting after straining his left hamstring in the previous game, and Kevin Durant still sidelined, the Raptors had to capitalize. The Warriors managed to keep it relatively close, largely due to the greatness of Stephen Curry, who finished with a playoff career-high 47 points, but every time the Warriors reached striking distance, the Raptors would fend them off, putting together a string of good plays, and the player who was at the center of much of that was Danny Green.

Some numbers for you: Danny Green shot 18.8% from behind the arc in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, with a total of six made threes. By the end of this game, he was shooting 50% from downtown in the series, and had accumulated eleven makes. His career regular season 3P% is 40.4%. His career playoff 3P% is 39.9%. His career NBA Finals 3P%, including one trip with the young-LeBron Cavaliers, two with the San Antonio Spurs, and this trip up and including this game, is 52% (!!!). In other words, Danny Green is made for the NBA Finals.

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(Image: Fortune)

Later in the same game, after the ball flew out of bounds, the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry pursued it, trying to save the ball. He would fail, and collide into the first two row of Warrior fans. As Lowry tried to regain his footing to get back on his feet and off of the people in the first row, a man one seat over reached his arm out to shove Lowry. Lowry, however, did not confront the man, instead opting to notify the officials, who then ejected the fan from the game.

Following the game, that fan would be identified as Mark Stevens, a minority investor in the Golden State Warriors. The league office would quickly ban Stevens from attending games, as well as all Warriors’ team activities, and fine him $500,000. LeBron condemned the shove on Instagram, along with players from both teams, and Lowry would later reveal that along with the shove, Stevens simultaneously told him to “go fuck yourself”, multiple times.

The incident would not end up being the most talked about sideline moment from this game, however. That honor would go to the interaction between the wife of Warriors’ majority owner Joe Lacob — Nicole Curran — and Beyoncé, after Beyoncé’s reaction to Curran leaning into her personal space to talk to Jay-Z, allegedly to offer to buy them a drink, went viral. The Beyhive is strong.

The Raptors would win Game 3 123–109, despite Steph’s 47 points, the second time a player scored 47+ points in the Finals and lost. (The first was LeBron’s 51 points in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals, aka the J.R. Smith Blunder Game.) In Game 4, the Warriors would get Klay back from a strained hamstring, and also Kevon Looney from a chest injury. Both would play well, and the Warriors would come out strong, entering halftime with a lead for the first time in the series. Then Kawhi Leonard took over.

Less than a minute into the second half, Kawhi drained a 3-pointer, got a steal off of Draymond Green, then buried another 3-pointer. Just like that the Raptors regained the lead, along with control of the game. Each time the Warriors were about to go on one of their patented runs, Kawhi took control of the pace of the game, and getting buckets when Toronto needed them. He would finish with 36 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 steals, securing a 105–92 win and a series 3–1 lead, with help from Serge Ibaka, a member of the KD-Russ OKC Thunder, the last team to have a 3–1 lead against the Warriors.

After reports that Kevin Durant would practice with the team prior to Game 5 and was prepared to play, he re-entered the Warriors’ line-up and immediately shut down the narrative that the Warriors did not need him. From the moment the game began, the Warriors felt like a different team. They had an entirely different energy to them. The confidence and poise they had as the league’s juggernaut was back, and everyone could tell it was because of KD. The Slim Reaper would make his first shot in over a month, a 3-pointer, then a second 3-pointer moments later, and it felt like the real Warriors had just entered the NBA Finals. But then it ended.

Things changed in an instant when, a few minutes into the second quarter, Kevin Durant squared up against former teammate Serge Ibaka out on the right wing, started making his move, only to lose the ball and then crumble to the ground holding his right calf. It did not seem particularly serious at first, and Durant remained fairly calm, which may have been a contributing factor to the Toronto crowd audibly cheering about his injury. Raptor players would quiet the crowd’s cheers, which then began chanting his name as he was helped to the locker-room, but Canada’s reputation would take a hit.

Throughout these playoffs, the player that Kawhi Leonard was most often compared to was none other than the G.O.A.T. himself, Michael Jordan, and with about five minutes remaining in Game 5, with a championship within smelling distance, Kawhi channeled Michael Jordan and took over the game. In a “I’m ending this” run like few we’ve seen, Kawhi scored 10 straight points to take the Raptors from down 2 to up 6 with just over 3 minutes left.

In every Finals, there’s a moment when the game-clock starts winding down, and a team realizes it’s about to win the championship, and smiles burst out of their faces, and joy becomes visible. Kawhi Leonard got the Raptors to the brink of that moment. One or two more possessions and the Raptors would have gotten there, and the building would’ve exploded. Instead…

“Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion”, one of the NBA’s most famous adages goes. Steph and Klay would remind the world of this. With a bit under 90 seconds left, Steph freed himself from Fred VanVleet, who was having more success guarding him than most, and drained a tough 3-pointer to bring the Warriors back from Kawhi’s one-man assault. Then, with just under 60 seconds remaining, the Warriors would find Klay alone on the left wing, who would shot-fake Kawhi, side-step, and drain another 3, putting the Warriors up 3.

Despite committing a mind-boggling backcourt violation, they’d hold on and steal Game 5. Following the incredible emotional drop of losing Durant after the high of his return, and losing Kevon Looney for the second time this series, this win was arguably one of the most impressive in the Steph-Klay era. They not only overcame those disheartening injuries, they withstood a legendary assault by Kawhi, the undisputed best player of the entire playoffs, and pulled out a season-saving victory in Toronto. But their minds were elsewhere.

For those who don’t follow post-game press conferences, know that tea, executives never take the podium, not even after winning the championship. But on this night, Bob Meyers, President of Basketball Operations for the Warriors, took the podium, and what followed was shocking. Meyers was visibly devastated, and even more so when he informed the reporters that the injury Kevin Durant suffered was not a reaggravation of his calf injury, but an Achilles injury, an injury we’d later learn to be a tendon rupture.

He then addressed what everyone was thinking: the decision to play Kevin Durant. Reports indicate that Durant was cleared both by the team’s doctors, as well as an outside doctor, and Meyers reflected this, saying that he believed that nobody deserves blame for what transpired, but that he’s willing to take the blame if blame is what’s necessary. On a night where the Warriors pulled out an incredible victory, nobody was celebrating what they won, and everybody was mourning what was lost.

With the Warriors fighting to keep their three-peat dream alive and send off Oracle Arena with a win, Golden State got off to the worst possible start, with the Raptors, and Kyle Lowry in particular, seemingly making every shot they took to open the game. However, with a combination of Draymond Green pushing the pace and quick-hit ball movement, the Warriors weathered the storm, finishing the 1st quarter down 1. In the 2nd and 3rd quarter, it was Klay Thompson who made tough shot after tough shot, all of which not only helped the score margin, but also elevated the energy of the building and the team’s spirit, continuing what was already an absurdly-hot shooting streak.

But then, like KD in the previous game, Klay went down. He was in visible pain, writhing on the floor, and it started to feel like either the Warriors were cursed or the Raptors were destined to win. Klay would leave the game, and the game would go to commercial. But in a reversal for the ages, when the game returned, the broadcast cut to Klay re-entering the game, and a replay of him walking back to the locker-room, only to turn around and return to the court, after he was reminded that he would be ineligible to return to the game if he didn’t shoot the free throws he earned on the play. He made both. The legend of Game 6 Klay began against the Thunder back in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, also while down 2–3, and this game added to that legend.

Klay would not return to the game. Despite that, the game would remain close all the way to the final buzzer. Fred VanVleet, who was on a hot streak since mid-way through the Conference Finals, made huge 3-pointers in the 4th quarter and Pascal Siakam continuously got to the basket. But the Warriors gave themselves a chance. Out of a timeout, down 1 with 9.6 seconds remaining, the Warriors got Steph a shot. It didn’t fall, and the miss resulted in a long rebound, a loose ball, and several players diving for the ball, but by the end of it, despite a few remaining formalities, it was clear: the Toronto Raptors, after their birth as an expansion team, after Vince Carter and then Chris Bosh left then, and the countless playoff disappointments, had defeated the Golden State Warriors, and a new champion was crowned.

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(Image: Toronto Raptors)

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I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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