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Raptors clinch first NBA championship in team’s 24-year franchise history

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The Toronto Raptors’ blockbuster trade for Kawhi Leonard last summer was barely a day old when the forward reached out to his new teammate Kyle Lowry.

“I said ‘Let’s go out and do something special. I know your best friend (DeMar DeRozan) left. I know you’re mad. But let’s make this thing work out,” Leonard told Lowry in a text message.

“And we are here today.”

Here they are indeed. NBA champions for the first time in the team’s history, a brilliant basketball story 24 years in the making reaching its climax Thursday night with a series-clinching win over the Golden State Warriors.

“It just showed the type of person he is,” Lowry said of Leonard’s gesture. “Willing to reach out, understanding that this situation was a little bit sensitive. But he knew that he felt something could be done special with our group.”

Lowry, who’d said from Day 1 of training camp his goal was a “gold ball,” poured in 26 points, doled out 10 assists and grabbed seven rebounds to lift the Raptors to a thrilling 114-110 victory over the two-time defending champion Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

Raptors in six. Or 6ix. A storybook ending.

“Basketball has come full circle in Canada, invented by a Canadian, the first NBA game was in Toronto and now an NBA championship,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said before presenting the Larry O’Brien Trophy to the Raptors.

“Toronto, Canada, we brought it home baby!” Lowry said at the trophy presentation, his two young sons Karter and Kameron pressed up against his legs.

There were reports the victory parade will be held Monday, allowing the city to celebrate. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the owner of the Raptors, is scheduled to make an official announcement on Friday.

Lowry caught Stephen Curry’s full-court heave at the buzzer and held the ball tight to his chest before wrapping Leonard, whose arms were pointing toward the rafters, in a huge hug. Cue the delirious celebration.

“I’ll make sure that we’ll put that (basketball) in the practice gym or somewhere and have it done up to say ‘2019 NBA champions.’ That one will be displayed somewhere in Toronto,” Lowry said.

Pascal Siakam added 26 points, while Fred VanVleet had 12 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter. Leonard finished with 22, and Serge Ibaka chipped in with 15.

Leonard was named Finals MVP for the second time in his career. He was acquired in a blockbuster deal that sent former Raptors star DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs last summer. Leonard played just nine games last year because of a serious quadriceps injury.

“Last year a lot of people were doubting me,” said Leonard, drenched in champagne and pair of ski goggles still atop his head from the post-game locker-room celebrations. “They thought I was either faking an injury or didn’t want to play for a team. That was disappointing . . . because I love the game of basketball.

“I just knew I had to make myself happy and no-one else. And I have to trust myself. That was my goal and my focus.”

Leonard becomes a free agent this summer, and hasn’t given any hints if he’ll re-sign with Toronto.

“I’m going to enjoy this with my teammates and coaches and I’ll think about that later,” Leonard said.

He’ll go down as a hero in Toronto either way.

Hundreds of Canadian fans at Oracle sang “O Canada” as the Raptors took pictures with the trophy.

New Balance, which has put out several cheeky ads featuring the soft-spoken Leonard, delivered another one after the game, saying “Rings speak louder than words.” 

“We all know where my (preferred) destinations were (last summer),” Leonard said. “But obviously like I said, when I was there on my opening-day meeting that I was focused on the now, and I wanted to make history here and that’s all I did. I’m still playing basketball no matter what jersey I have on.

“And the guys here have been making runs in the playoffs before I came, so I know they were a talented team. And I just came in with the right mindset, let’s go out and win ball games.”

It was the first championship in one of the big four North American sports leagues (NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL) for a Canadian team since the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993.

Klay Thompson had 30 points for the Warriors before leaving the game late in the third quarter with what would later be diagnosed as a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Andre Iguodala added 22, while Curry finished with 21 the Warriors, who’d won three of the previous four NBA titles.

In what will go down as one of the most exciting games in recent Finals history, Lowry — playing with the sprained left thumb he suffered in Game 7 of the conference semis 12 games earlier — got the Raptors going, staking his team to an early nine-point lead as the teams played breakneck basketball. Three days after connecting on just eight three-pointers in Game 5, the Raptors had nine from deep by the end of the first half Thursday.

Both Lowry and Leonard ran into foul trouble in the third quarter, picking up their fourth fouls. A three-pointer by Iguodala with a minute left in the third put the Warriors up by five — their biggest lead to that point — and ignited the rowdy crowd. Golden State led 88-86 with one quarter to play.

VanVleet had three big three-pointers in the fourth quarter: his first tied the game, his second gave Toronto a one-point lead with 7:08 to play, and his third put Toronto up 104-101 with 3:44 to play. Toronto would not relinquish that lead.

VanVleet, looking battered with a bandage under the eye he cut a couple of games earlier, clenched his fists and let out a jubilant yell after the final one.

“It’s not the glam stars,” VanVleet said of his team, which doesn’t include one draft-lottery pick. “None of our guys other than Kawhi are in that big-boy club, or the fan boy club of the NBA. We got guys who had to get it the long way, who had to get it out of the mud, who had to get it against the grain.”

A Lowry basket made it a six-point Raptors lead with 2:14 to play. But a three-pointer by Draymond Green sparked a Warriors run capped by a DeMarcus Cousins layup that slashed Toronto’s lead to a point with 38 seconds left.

On Toronto’s second-last possession, Leonard was swarmed by Warriors as he finally got a pass off to Danny Green. But Siakam fumbled Green’s pass and it went out of bounds, giving the ball back to Golden State with 9.6 seconds to play. Curry’s three-pointer bounced off the rim, then the Raptors regained control with 0.9 seconds left after a mad scramble. 

Leonard scored on a technical awarded because the Warriors called a timeout when they didn’t have one to take. He connected for two more to clinch Toronto the victory.

After 82 regular-season games, and 24 post-season battles, all leading to this moment, finally the Raptors could celebrate.

The Raptors had been methodically working since president Masai Ujiri, dreaming of an NBA title, acquired Leonard last summer, and then added Marc Gasol at February’s trade deadline. Leonard has been their emotional gauge, his teammates assuming his mantra of living in the moment. Never too high, never too low.

“This is a strong-minded tough-ass group of guys,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse, almost a year to the day he was promoted to head coach after the firing of Dwane Casey.

The Raptors’ post-season run had seen Toronto trail Orlando 1-0, Philadelphia 2-1, and Milwaukee 2-0. But the level-headed Raptors never allowed doubt to creep in.

They’d missed an opportunity to close out the Finals at home on Monday, losing to the Warriors 106-105 on a night marred by Kevin Durant’s torn Achilles tendon. The Warriors vowed to win for Durant, and when highlights of the 10-time all-star were played on the Jumbotron, the arena erupted in chants of “K-D!”

The Raptors’ historic run to the Finals gave the NBA something new, a fan base that extended beyond the boundaries of just one city, but stretched across an entire country. There’s been a groundswell of support from the Maritimes to Vancouver Island. Hundreds of Raptors fans were at Oracle Arena for all three games, turning the storied building into their own O-Town version of Jurassic Park. 

Back home, thousands of fans gathered at Jurassic Park outside Scotiabank Arena cheered on the Raptors under dark skies and drizzling rain, ponchos pulled up over dripping hair. There were viewing parties across Canada, including Montreal, which was dubbed “Jurassic Peel,” and at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, normally home to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The pockets of Raptors fans in Oracle Arena could be heard singing along with Canadian singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan to “O Canada.” Train’s lead singer Pat Monahan performed the U.S. anthem.

Win or lose, it was bound to be an emotional night for the Warriors, who say goodbye to Oracle Arena, their home since 1967 and a storied building that has seen plenty of glorious victories, before moving across the bay to sparking new Chase Center in San Francisco next season.

“This is sort of a once in a career moment where you play in a building for the very last time,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “Win or lose, we’ll be able to share some emotion and say our goodbyes. But it is a strange, unique night.”

The capacity crowd of 19,596 that included baseball’s Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, retired L.A. Lakers star Metta World Peace, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson marked the 343rd consecutive — and final — Warriors sellout at Oracle.

  

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press














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Bruce Dowbiggin

Deal With It: When St. Patrick Talked His Way Out Of Montreal

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Coming soon, our latest book “Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL And Changed Hockey”. With my son Evan, we look back to Espo to the Bruins (1967), Gretzky to the Kings (1988) , and St. Patrick to the Avalanche (1995), Deal With It tracks the back story behind the most impactful trades in modern NHL history. With detailed analysis and keen insight into these and five other monumental transactions, Deal With It recalls the moments when history was changed. Plus a ranking of the Top 25 Deals in NHL History.

One of the most memorable occurred 24 years ago, on December 6, 1995: Patrick Roy and Mike Keane from the Montreal Canadiens to the Colorado Avalanche for Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko. Trading, arguably, the greatest goalie the Canadiens history was the culmination of organizational dysfunction from which it has yet to recover. It begins with the hiring of former Habs Mario Tremblay and Rejean Houle when the Canadiens stumbled entering the 1994-1995 season. It started off well. Then on a November night in Montreal…

“With the team cooling off from their torrid start under (Mario) Tremblay, the Habs were at home for a Saturday night affair hosting a powerful Red Wings team on its way to breaking the NHL single-season wins record set by the 1976-77 Montreal team (62 to that club’s 60). With the closing of the Forum, the arena Roy had once dominated, Patrick’s dominance had become less-than-surefire. (He came in that night at 238-80-34 all-time at the Forum.) All that rich history didn’t help Roy that particular night and before a national TV audience the wheels came off for hundreds of thousands to witness.

Earlier in the day, Roy had had an impromptu breakfast at Moe’s Diner in Montreal with Detroit goalie Mike Vernon, who’d himself been forced out of Calgary after winning a Cup. Roy described his predicament. “It might be time for you to ask for a trade,” Vernon suggested to him. Fast forward to the notorious game. Getting bludgeoned by the Wings attack, Roy had given up nine goals before the game hit its halfway mark. Getting mock cheers for one of his few saves on the night- prompted a seething Roy replied with mock acknowledgement to the crowd. Clearly overwhelmed, Roy was kept in the nets as Tremblay let his star goalie get roasted by Scotty Bowman, who enjoyed getting revenge on his former player Tremblay for some remarks he’d made about Bowman’s coaching style.

Finally hooked after the ninth marker, Roy glared menacingly at his coach as he walked by on the bench. Stopping to take care of more business, he walked back across and, face-to-face, told a distressed-looking Corey that he had just played his last game with the Canadiens. As Roy walked past Tremblay on his way to the end of the bench, Roy and Tremblay glared eye-to-eye. Roy told him in French, “You understand?” This very public moment overshadowed what remains the worst home loss in the club’s storied history, an 11-1 spanking from Detroit. TV highlights that night across North America showed the stare-down.“The whole city was talking about it,” recalled Montreal native Eric Engels. “The team had suspended Roy and said they were going to trade him, and I just remember saying to the bus driver that they didn’t have to go this way, that they could salvage the situation.”

The following days saw the controversy erupt even further. Just months after plucking Houle and Tremblay from outside the organization, Corey sided with his inexperienced newbies and told Roy he would be getting dealt even when Roy apologized for his spat and vowed to mend fences. Typical of the climate at the time for even superior players who “disrespected” the organization, Roy was persona non grata in a matter of days. In his book, Serge Savard: Forever Canadien”, Savard explained the inevitability of the deal: “Patrick had become too important in the club. He took up too much space in the dressing room, had too much influence on the coach. Over the previous years, I had to handle him with kid gloves. I still had the same admiration for him as I did when we won the Stanley Cup in 1986 and 1993, where he played a determining role. But a change had become necessary. The team revolved around him too much. For the good of everyone, he needed a change of scenery.”

Team captain Mike Keane didn’t help lower the temperature at the Forum by claiming the man who wore the “C” with the Canadiens didn’t necessarily need to speak French and that he wouldn’t be bothering to learn it because the dressing room mostly communicated in English (true even in the most predominately French-based Habs teams such as the 1993 Cup winner that boasted no less than dozen Quebecois). Both Keane and Roy would go on the trading block together, joining similarly exiled pieces like Chris Chelios and Guy Carbonneau (the captain of the ’93 Cup winner, dealt after 1993-94 to the Blues for Jim Montgomery, after flashing the middle finger to a photographer who had eavesdropped on him playing a round of golf). Carbonneau’s successor at captain, Kirk Muller— an Ontario boy through and through— expressed how honoured and proud he was to wear the fabled letter patch. But he, too, would find himself gone to the Islanders partway through 1994-95. In other words, almost no one was sacred in Ron Corey’s world. Only four days after his dressing-down of the team president and head coach, Roy was notified by Houle that he had been traded.

Just like that, Montreal had parted with its franchise goalie as if it were still the “Original Six” days and players that got in management’s crosshairs were expendable. How traumatic was the deal for the rookie GM Houle? He’ll never tell. “And that is what I intend to do forever so that I don’t have to look back at a time that was difficult for me.” As for Roy, his take was “It was clear from the organization that they had made their decision. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll accept my mistake.’ I agree I was the one who made that thing happen on that Saturday, and both parties agreed it was in the best interests of us that we go different directions. I understand that you can’t put ten years aside and give it a little tap and it’s all gone. I lived through lots of good things in Montreal, but, again, it’s a turn I accept.”

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his new book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

The Secret To Landing Huge QB Contracts? Timing

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What is the reward for a quarterback who can’t get his team out of the wildcard round of the NFL playoffs? If you’re Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa the reward for failure will likely be a $250 million handshake over five years. While Travis Kelce walks off with Taylor Swift, Tua will walk off with a Brinks truck. How? And why does this have NFL executives petrified?

Tagovailoa has been a thing since his splashy college days at Alabama where he was anointed as the next great QB in the NFL. Losing teams were “tanking for Tua” in an attempt to draft him in 2020 when he left the Crimson Tide. In the end, the Miami Dolphins came away with what was purported to be the left-handed version of Joe Namath.

Unlike fellow 2020 draftees like QBs Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts and Justin Herbert, Tua did not instantly light up the NFL. In his early years he was plagued by injuries and concussions so bad that there was talk he might even retire. But this year he stayed healthy and flourished early on in coach Mike McDaniel’s upbeat offence. When Tagovailoa and his speedy receivers Tyreek Hill and Jalen Waddle put up 70 points against Denver in Game 5 it seemed Miami was the team to beat for the Super Bowl.

But then injuries and defences caught up with the Dolphins. Once again, Tua faded down the stretch. From masters of their fate, the Fins gave up 56 points to Baltimore in Week 17 and then allowed Buffalo to beat them on their home field, losing the AFC East and home-field advantage to the Bills. Thus they were sentenced to the freezing -28 C windchill conditions in KC and a 26-7 spanking from Patrick Mahomes.

Despite being second in yards-per-throw while also ranking top five in yards-per-game and passing touchdowns since 2022, Tua is being branded as a disappointment in big games. Which couldn’t be worse news for the Dolphins. Having extended his contract into a fifth year in 2022, Miami must now decide whether to gamble it all on Tua improving or look for another QB who could get them over the hump.

Or pay the pitiless NFL Pay Piper nonetheless. In the modern NFL, the QB is king and thus must be paid as such. If you have a QB who might— might—be Super Bowl worthy you must pay the equivalent of the GDP of a small African nation. You are also whip-sawed by the certainty that the price for your QB will go up if you dither. Or else letting him go and trying to find another saviour in the unpredictable Draft lottery. In Tua’s case if he stays, that means anywhere from $225 (Hurts) to $275 million (Burrow) on the Miami salary cap with no hope of getting out from it if he stalls.

It’s the same dead end that faced the New York Giants last year where, after extending Daniel Jones’s contract through to the end of his rookie deal, they were forced to pay the unexciting Jones $160 million. Jones lasted six games this season before a season-ending injury. Ditto Washington which dithered on Kirk Cousins, paying him enormous amounts on one-year extensions then losing him to the Vikings in free agency.

While Miami contemplates either arsenic or strychnine in its Tua dilemma, they can look out and see a team that played the QB Casino perfectly. Houston’s C.J. Stroud— selected second in the 2023 Draft— lit up the Cleveland Browns in his first playoff game, looking every inch the Sure Thing NFL clubs crave.

As opposed to Tua, Stroud still has four more years at a very friendly rate. Throughout the four-year rookie contract, Stroud’s cap hit never goes above $11.5 million. That allows the improving Texans to spend on other players needed to win in the postseason.

The Chicago Bears wish. They have entered the extend-or-lose-him phase with fourth-year QB Justin Fields, who flashes some promise but also major warning signs. Do they sign him to the going $250 M rate or use the No. 1 pick in this year’s Draft (obtained from Carolina) on his replacement? Picking wrong will set back the Bears rebuild at least a couple of years.

The Bears are lucky by contrast with the Carolina Panthers who thought they’d answered their QB muddle by trading up, forgoing Stroud to take undersized Alabama QB Bryce Young first overall. His rookie year was a washout, with the Panthers winning just two games and coach Frank Reich fired midway. Critics who loved him at last April’s draft now think Young might be too small for the position, forcing Carolina to go through the whole QB gauntlet once again if, by next year, he is washing out.

Some teams try to add a young QB once they have the other pieces in place, hoping to find someone whom will fit into an existing template. The Detroit Lions are trying to make that equation work with Jared Goff. That was also the thought with Cousins in Minnesota. Just plug-and-play him into a veteran team and voila! Except it hasn’t worked. It rarely does.

Getting a QB to perform over his contract value means riding a young player like Stroud till he gets to the serious money. Then putting other key pieces in place around him. See: Mister Irrelevant Brock Purdy in San Fran where they were able to pay stars like Nick Bosa, DeeBo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle and Trent Williams because Purdy was costing so little.

Who knows which 2020 QB model will prove to be the template? Based on this past weekend it might just be the guy selected 26th overall who waited behind Aaron Rodgers. Packers QB Jordan Love made himself $500 K in humbling the Dallas Cowboys after a long apprenticeship. His affordability just might take the Packers to the Super Bowl.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his new book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

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