OAKLAND – A lot goes on over the course of an NBA playoff run as successful and long as the one the Toronto Raptors just completed. Storylines that might otherwise get more attention get overlooked as the focus remains primarily on the stars of the series. Here are a few storylines that got underplayed over the course of these Finals, but were of particular importance in helping the Raptors earn their first NBA championship.
VanVleet’s work on Steph Curry
Steph Curry was the lone remaining almost healthy star on a Golden State Warriors team that began the 2018-19 campaign the prohibitive favourites to win yet another championship. Kevin Durant played 12 minutes in the series. Klay Thompson strained a hamstring early and then tore his ACL in the finale. What it meant was Curry was the biggest obstacle between the Raptors and a title. Stopping him was job no. 1. Plenty of players took turns on Curry, but none had primary defensive duties on Curry as much as VanVleet. The undrafted VanVleet was on Curry for 198 possessions in the series and held him to just 51 points total. That’s about 12 points a game less than he scores against everyone else in the league. Curry shot just 27% from three and 33% from the field when matched up against VanVleet. There are a ton of veteran defenders with far more experience and honours on their resume than the third-year VanVleet, but Nick Nurse deemed him his best option. VanVleet was somewhat humbled by the move. “I just tried to own up to it,” he said. “I tried to live up to it. It’s a big task, it’s a big assignment, and I know what it meant to our team. So I did pretty good over the course of the series. He got loose, it felt like he scored a thousand points on me. As a defender, you never like getting scored on, so that was tough. And it’s obviously the toughest guy I had to guard for that long every game, all game, a million screens, it’s hard to push and grab, he’s so good at drawing fouls. So I just tried to live up to the challenge and accept the challenge and, hopefully, I gained some respect there and just tried to help my team get wins”
The fact that Toronto hoisted the Larry O’Brien championship trophy on Thursday night is all the proof needed that VanVleet handled the assignment as good as anyone could have.
Ibaka’s role off the bench
Serge Ibaka is a very, very proud man who has been a starter in this league just about every year he has been in it. This year was a challenge for Ibaka in that he was asked to take a step back and come off the bench. At his stage in his career this can be a tough pill to swallow, but Ibaka did just that.
He began the year splitting time with Jonas Valanciunas for starters’ minutes at the centre position. He started 51 of the 74 regular-season games he played – the lowest start ratio of his career since his second year in the league. When Marc Gasol showed up, the starts eventually dried up to zero. He did not start any of Toronto’s 24 playoff games. He did it all without a word of complaint. In the Philadelphia series, his rebounding and defence stole the momentum from the Sixers. It’s not a stretch to say that without Ibaka, the Raptors probably don’t make it out of the second round. Not every game was a gem over the course of 24 for Ibaka or anyone, really, in the lineup, but at least once a series he would give you one of those much-needed offensive boosts in addition to his rebounding and rim protection and sheer force of will.
We started hearing how impactful Pascal Siakam was going to be last summer when he was working out at the UCLA campus and the stars of the league – guys like LeBron James – were talking about how far he had come and what a problem he was going to be for opposing defences. Coach Nurse and his coaching staff saw it, too, and immediately made him a staple of Toronto’s starting five. Siakam rarely took a step back in the regular season, rolling, it seemed, from the opening game right through game No. 82. The playoffs brought added scrutiny and a new level of attention. Siakam adjusted, not always right away, but he adjusted and came back and produced. That ability to makes those changes on the fly, at the most crucial juncture in his young career were pivotal in Toronto maintaining its steady run towards a title. Siakam’s confidence never wavered, even after some rather frustrating games. When his head coach called him out for some lackluster defence after the second-to-final game of the run, Siakam responded with a stellar defensive effort in the close-out game in addition to the 26 points and 10 rebounds he put up.
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