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How Kawhi And The Raptors Took Over the East

After a fantastic 17/18 season in which they finished with a league and franchise history best 59 wins and an unfortunate early second round exit at the hands of "The King in the East", LeBron James himself, the Toronto Raptors have a found a way to outdo themselves and completely take over the Eastern Conference this season.

Toronto's end to 2018 was nothing but a huge disappointment, the Canadian team had the same old struggles, as both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, again, under-preformed when it mattered most. DeRozan's performance stands out above the rest because of how poor it trully was: 0 for 9 from behind the arc and a measly 16.8 point on 34 minutes per game, at a 44% clip from the field. Lowry's performance wasn't great either with 36 minutes per game and only 17.8 points per game to show for it.

Regardless of their continued poorness of play during the playoffs both DeRozan and Lowry are big figures inside the organization, so it came as quite a shock when Raptors president of basketball operations, Masai Ujiri, opted to trade the shooting guard for Kawhi Leonard, who at the time seemed set on letting his contract run out to eventually join either LA team.

Ujiri took a huge risk trading for Kawhi in hopes that he would re-sign with the team after the end of the 2018/19 season, which still seems clear to this day.

Regardless, in the short year that he has played for the Canadians, Kawhi has shown the entire league why he was worth the gamble.

Toronto's crazy off season did not end there, however, as Coach of the Year winner Dwayne Casey was fired promptly after the end of the playoffs. In to replace him: none other than Casey's own assistant coach, Nick Nurse, who's only head coaching experience at the time of his appointment had been with the Minnesota Timberwolves' D-league affiliate. So yet again, Masai Ujiri took a gamble.

On paper, excluding Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors didn't really look like much at the beginning of the season, but steadily we started seeing how Ujiri's gamble might have just been the work of a secret-magical-future-predicting-genius. Not only did Kawhi get back to his old self as quick as you can say "trade me", but Nurse seemed to have perfectly manufactured his team to work around Kawhi, but most importantly as a single unified unit.

The Raptors season has quietly been one of efficiency and consistency, sitting fifth in both offensive and defensive rating, thanks in great measure to Nurse's tight defensive schemes.

The Canadian team, however, hasn't been much about the crazy highlights or record shattering performances and more about getting it done. In a season that resembles those of a certain Señor LeBron, the Raptors got the job done during the regular season, doing enough to clinch the second seed in the entire league, seemingly resting their full potential until play off time took over NBA life.

With an already defensively excellent team in town, Ujiri, again, decided to take one last gamble and trade for 34 year old, former Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol, in exchange for, you guessed it, another fan favorite, in this instance, centre, Jonas Valanciunas.

Why was a former DPOY such a gamble? you ask, well, Marc Gasol's career has been, unfortunately, highlighted by playoff disappointment and loyalty towards a franchise that never had a real chance at a tittle; not the way they play, not in this current NBA. Gasol has been, and still very much is, poor at the end of his career and his stats visibly show that, there's a drop in every major statistical category throughout the last few seasons and the Spaniard is not what he once was.

Nick Nurse, however, has found a way to fit the aging star into his team, taking advantage of his defensive IQ and inside presence to anchor possibly the league's best defense towards the tail end of the regular season.

The team is rounded out by MIP candidate and Scottie Pippen impersonator, Pascal Siakam, finals veteran Danny Green and great bench contributors such as Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. Even after a great season, not many saw the raptors as favorites to escape the East and make it through to the NBA finals.

After an easy 5 game series win over the clearly inferior Orlando Magic, the Raptors beat the Sixers in a very well fought 7 game series in which Gimmy Butler almost got the best out of Kawhi and the Raptors. It was during the Conference Finals that Toronto faced the real challenge, as they were matched up against MVP favorite, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the best regular season team across the Association.

Going down 2-0 in Milwaukee, the Raptors showed what makes them truly great: their defense and their ability to adapt.

Taking the first games as a lesson the Raptors traveled back to Toronto ready to exploit Milwaukee's weaknesses. For the first time this season a team was able to completely cancel Giannis out, meeting him early at the three point line when in half court, closing his driving lane by double teaming him, forcing him to kick it out to an open man who immediately had a Raptor player creeping up to contest.

The Raptors essentially feasted on Giannis' lack of a mid range shot by creating a wall around the rim only allowing outside shots they knew they could quickly get to. That and Kawhi's all-time great postseason sealed the deal.

As the Raptors get ready to face, undoubtedly, the best basketball team of the decade, they have a chance at doing something truly special, if they can win it all.

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