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What a difference a year makes is such a cliché. But, man, what a difference a year makes.
On the night of June 13, 2019, Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors beat a badly wounded Golden State Warriors team 114-110 in Game 6 of the Finals in Oakland to win Toronto’s first NBA title. For Raptors fans across Canada, it was the culmination of a playoff run that was exhilarating and surprising and unforgettable in all the best ways.
Fast-forward a year and everything is upside-down. Thanks to a once-in-a-century global pandemic, there’s no NBA basketball. Hell, you’re not even allowed to play a pickup game in Toronto right now. Instead of fans packing the streets to celebrate, many have gathered to protest racial injustice and police violence — and then retreated back to their homes to resume social distancing.
Here’s a look at what else has changed for some of the figures involved in last year’s championship series, and what they might be facing next:
For many of us, the first oh, s— moment of the coronavirus crisis occurred on the night of Wednesday, March 11. That’s when a Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder game was aborted just before tipoff because Jazz centre Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19. This happened the same day the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic. The NBA quickly announced it was suspending its season, and the next day many other sports leagues followed suit.
Three months later, we’re still a while away from the NBA returning. A plan has finally been hashed out that will see 22 of the league’s 30 teams (everyone who’s in a playoff spot or within six games of one) meet on the Disney World property in Orlando, Fla., this summer. They’ll begin training camps between July 9-11 and start playing games with no fans in attendance on July 31. Each team will play eight regular-season games, followed by a standard 16-team playoff tournament with best-of-seven series. A short play-in series will be held between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds if they’re within four games of each other. The NBA expects the Finals to begin by Sept. 30, which pushes the start of the 2020-21 season to probably early December.
The Golden State Warriors
No team in sports has endured more changes in the last year. The Warriors dynasty crumbled before our eyes in the 2019 Finals as stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson both suffered major injuries that greased the upset loss to Toronto. Durant then bolted for Brooklyn, where basketball’s most tragic figure has yet to suit up for a game and doesn’t plan on doing so until next season to make sure his Achilles is right. Thompson sat out the entire season too, and Steph Curry missed all but five games with a broken hand.
As a result, Golden State, which averaged 64 wins over the previous five seasons, finished an NBA-worst 15-50 and is among the eight bottom-feeders who aren’t invited to finish the season in Orlando. Not what the Warriors envisioned for their first year after ditching Oakland for a gilded new arena in San Francisco that caters to the Silicon Valley elite.
After a brief flirtation with staying in Toronto, the Finals MVP did exactly what he was expected to do all along: he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, who immediately became a top title contender by simultaneously swinging a deal for regular-season MVP finalist Paul George.
A lot of NBA observers seem to feel vaguely disappointed by the Clippers, but they’re just fine. At 44-20, they have the fourth-best record in the NBA. And that came with Kawhi, same as last year, skipping several games for load-management reasons and George missing the first month after shoulder surgery. Kawhi is averaging 26.9 points — 0.3 higher than last regular season with Toronto. The goal was always to make sure him and George stayed fresh for the playoffs, and now they’re extra-rested. The Clippers are still every bit the contender we thought they were last summer.
Here’s something that actually stayed the same: the Raptors are still a very good team. In fact, their .719 winning percentage is better than the one they finished the 2018-19 regular season with. Last year, the Raps had the second-best record in the NBA. This year, they’re third overall. Pretty good for losing the best player in the world and getting nothing in return.
The Raptors have a chip on their shoulder to prove they can win without Kawhi. Veteran guard Kyle Lowry is the embodiment of that attitude, and Pascal Siakam’s leap to stardom (he gets better every year) is a big reason Toronto has been able to keep chugging along.
Whatever happens in Orlando, you can count on the Raptors to put up a spirited, honourable defence of their title. But to pull off the repeat — definitely a possibility — they’ll have to once again get past Giannis Antetokounmpo and the top-ranked Bucks in the East. The resurgent Boston Celtics are a big threat this year too. A trip back to the Finals would likely mean a showdown with Kawhi’s Clips or the L.A. Lakers, who are led by Toronto tormentor LeBron James and his all-star sidekick Anthony Davis.
If the pandemic hadn’t happened, and if the Raptors didn’t make it back to the NBA Finals (the series should be in progress right now), their head coach would currently be preparing for a huge tournament for his side gig as coach of the Canadian national team. But the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics also meant that Canada’s last-chance qualifying tournament in Victoria was pushed back a year. Too bad, because several Canadian NBA players had signed on, giving the men’s national team a great chance of reaching the Olympics for the first time in 20 years.
At the moment, it seems unlikely those guys will stay on board for next year. With this year’s NBA playoffs not ending until the fall and the 2020-21 season probably opening a couple of months later than usual, the ’21 playoffs could extend into the summer — and possibly into the Olympics, which start on July 23. We think.
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