As the ball bounced around the rim, you could hear a pin drop in the Air Canada Center. Once it finally rattled in the noise was deafening (for good reason). Kawhi Leonard and his game 7 game-winner against the Philadelphia 76ers gave Toronto a reason to cheer. They finally have a chance to reach the NBA Finals.
Over the past five seasons with Dwayne Casey at the helm, the Raptors had failed to reach the NBA Finals, only managing to reach the Eastern Conference Finals once. In rookie head coach Nick Nurse’s first year he has already made it as far as Casey ever did. I am not discrediting Casey ( who won NBA Coach of the Year in 2018) rather than I am emphasizing the impact that Kawhi Leonard has had on this team.
DeMar DeRozan, who the Raptors traded for Leonard, is a great player. After being drafted by Toronto in 2009, DeRozan became the heart and soul of a time that was always in contention. He was just never able to get them over the hump like Leonard can.
It is no shoe in that the Raptors make the NBA Finals this season, but their chance is as good as ever. There is no LeBron James anymore. He went west and failed to even reach the postseason in 2018-19. The man that would continually stop Toronto from reaching their goal is no longer in their way. It is entirely possible that Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo fills LeBron’s shoes by being the unstoppable force that he is, but he still no King James (yet).
The Bucks will challenge Leonard and co., but having a top-five player like Kawhi makes them that much more dangerous and believable. In the past the NBA landscape would disregard the Raptors no matter their regular season record. But now with a former NBA Finals MVP leading the charge, the Raptors could finally be ready to raise the Larry O’Brien trophy after failing in the playoffs year after year.
-Jarrod Ribaudo (@Jribs53)