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NBA playoff notebook: Postseason narratives evoking memories of 2019 Raptors

·5-min read

Sunday was the second anniversary of the Toronto Raptors defeating the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to clinch the franchise’s first championship.

In the moment, the championship run was the most stressful and nail-biting journey the fanbase has embarked on, which is saying a lot considering the postseason ups and downs of the past decade.

In retrospect, it’s much easier to remember the joyous moments of the two-month run, which started with D.J. Augustin hitting a game-winner in Game 1 of the first round at Scotiabank Arena and ended with Kyle Lowry hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy at Oracle Arena.

It’s been difficult to watch this year’s playoffs without the Raptors and not think back to the title run from two years ago. I’ve been reminded of the 2019 championship team in several ways:

The idea of a team coalescing into a championship contender

The Raptors spent the 2018-19 season tip-toeing around daily questions about Kawhi Leonard’s availability as he load-managed his way through 82 "practices" in preparation for the playoffs. The defensive miscommunication between Marc Gasol and Leonard at the end of Game 1 against the Orlando Magic, which led to Augustin’s game-winner, provided a glimpse into how far they needed to grow as a championship unit.

By the time the Raptors came back from a 2-0 deficit against Milwaukee in the conference finals and went up 3-1 in the Finals, everyone on the roster was locked into their roles. The two-week stretch where the Raptors won seven out of eight games against the Bucks and the Warriors was the highest level of basketball this franchise has ever attained.

Two teams in these playoffs remind me of those Raptors in their togetherness: the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns. It comes as no surprise they’re both very well-coached teams, and one of them is led by an all-time great at point guard (more on him later). It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that these were the two best teams in the regular season. In a year where pretty much every team in the league had to deal with injuries and Covid-related absences, the Suns and Jazz were intact for most of the season. They coalesced into dominant teams over a 72-game schedule and are now on track to meet in the conference finals.

It's been two years since the Raptors hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
It's been two years since the Raptors hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

The importance of a superstar who can carry you across the finish line

The 2019 Raptors did not invent this concept, but it’s hard not to think of their title run when Leonard is doing a pretty good Finals MVP impersonation with the Los Angeles Clippers in these playoffs.

Leonard delivered when the Raptors faced two must-win games against Philadelphia in Game 4 on the road and Game 7 at home. Without him, Toronto goes home with another second-round defeat. His Game 5 performance on the road against Milwaukee also goes down as an all-time performance.

This Leonard stat blew my mind:

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The Clippers have been inconsistent, to put it kindly, in these playoffs, but Leonard has been perfect in the fourth quarter of all their wins, including an all-time performance in Game 6 against Dallas in the first round to save the season.

The only way the Clippers climb out of another 2-0 deficit in the second round will be if Leonard can put together a few more iconic performances.

Appreciating one of the best point guards of our generation

Lowry completed his basketball resume with a championship in 2019, killing every previous playoff narrative about him with a fantastic run, capped off by an incredible performance in the title-clinching Game 6 in the Finals.

Chris Paul will go down as a top-five point guard of all-time regardless of what happens the rest of these playoffs, but at age 36, he just submitted one of the best postseason series of his career in a sweep of the Denver Nuggets. Paul appears fully healed from a shoulder injury that hampered him throughout the first round and finished with 41 assists and three turnovers in leading the Suns to four straight wins in the second round and a berth in the Western Conference Finals.

Paul now has a shot at making his first Finals appearance and a championship would put a bow on his Hall of Fame-worthy resume.

Health and luck are required during every championship run

Although Lowry did play through a thumb injury that required surgery in the offseason, the Raptors were mostly healthy throughout their playoff run. Kevin Durant’s absence in the Finals save for an ill-fated Game 5 cameo remains another what-if.

But that’s the case for every single champion, and we’re seeing once again how injuries play a role in the postseason. The Los Angeles Lakers appeared on their way to beating the Suns in the first round until Anthony Davis went down with a groin injury in Game 4. Likewise, LeBron James didn’t look like himself after returning from a high ankle sprain.

Durant’s Brooklyn Nets appeared ready to cruise to a championship, but now James Harden and Kyrie Irving might miss the rest of the second round against the Bucks, and the Nets' hopes could be dashed by the end of the week.

The Nuggets, who the Suns swept, might have been the favorite to come out of the West if Jamal Murray’s season didn’t end prematurely with an ACL injury in April.

These injuries also point to the fleeting nature of championship windows. Nothing is guaranteed in this league from year to year. The Raptors took advantage of their opportunity in 2019. We’ll see who can follow their blueprint and write their championship narrative in these playoffs.

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