Take a breath everyone.
The NBA Finals will not be the Cleveland Cavilers vs. the Golden State Warriors for the fifth consecutive year.
Even though the likeliness of this match-up happening in 2019 reached zero percent the moment LeBron James went to the Lakers last summer, it's still a relief to know that the team representing the East was not the Cavs nor a LeBron-led team, because he didn't make the playoffs on the Lakers anyway.
Obviously the Warriors still an easy pick to represent the Western Conference for the fifth consecutive year. No team, not even LeBron's Lakers, could match their level of talent on the court.
Even when their best player, Kevin Durant, went down with an injury in the second round series against the Houston Rockets, the Warriors responded by winning the series and sweeping the Portland Trailblazers in the Western Conference Finals. Golden State, after all, won the NBA title in 2015 and were on the verge of another one in 2016 after a record 73 regular season wins before Durant joined them.
Previewing the Warriors vs. Cavs NBA Finals...For the Next 30 Years youtu.be
Even though Golden State has been a part of the finals for 5 years in a row, it will feel strange to not see LeBron or Cleveland on the other side, and their opponents are one of the most interesting NBA Finals representatives in years.
The Toronto Raptors franchise has existed for just under a quarter-century, but have already garnered a history of underachieving and choking in the playoffs.
It all began when the team's first superstar and most iconic player, Vince Carter, missed what would have been the series-winning shot in the 2001 Eastern conference semi-finals against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Had Carter made that shot, history might have been different as they would have advanced to their first conference Finals and Carter's Raptors career might not have ended as ugly as it did when he forced a trade to the Nets in 2005.
Toronto found another all-star to replace Carter in Chris Bosh for a while, but Bosh would leave in free agency in 2010 to become apart of the iconic and controversial Miami Heat Big 3 with Dwayne Wade and LeBron James. To their credit, the Raptors drafted another all-star in DeMar DeRozan in 2010 and acquired Kyle Lowry in 2012 to become a contender again.
Unfortunately, DeRozan and Lowry's Raptors became apart of a narrative that refused to go away: Getting owned by LeBron James. Toronto would be eliminated from the playoffs at the hands of LeBron's Cavs for three consecutive seasons including their first trip to the Eastern Finals in 2016. The cherry on top, however, would be getting swept by LeBron last season despite owning the best record in the conference and having home court advantage.
The Raptors may have won 60 games that season, but they became a bigger joke than teams that were tanking at the time. So what did they do about it? They fired their head coach Dwayne Casey (who had won NBA coach of the year for that season anyway) and traded their face of the franchise DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard.
Most considered this trade to be terrible. Kawhi Leonard was a disgruntled superstar who wanted out of San Antonio and hinted at wanting to play in Los Angeles. Instead, he was sent into the heart of Canada for what could be only one season before leaving via free agency. The Toronto franchise basically admitted to DeRozan that they can't win a championship with him as the best player by trading him, and they took their chances on one season with one of the best players in basketball with Leonard.
And to the credit of Raptors president Masai Ujiri, it worked.
All season, the Eastern Conference was a four-team race between the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers, and Boston Celtics.
The Celtics took a step back after nearly reaching the Finals the previous season and were knocked out of the second round to Milwaukee. And Toronto would get past Philadelphia in a back-and-forth seven-game series and an (as a Sixers fan, BRUUUUUUUTALLLLLL) epic victory in Game 7 with a ridiculous game-winning shot by Leonard.
In the conference finals against a team, many proclaimed as the best in basketball, the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto overcame an 0-2 deficit and won four in a row to win the series.
And there you have it, the Toronto Raptors are in the NBA Finals for the first time ever.
Even if they win the championship against the current NBA dynasty in Golden State, Leonard may still depart this off-season for greener pastures, but the bold trade Ujiri made last year is still worth it either way. With a head coach and all-stars who were never going to get it done, they made the gutsy choice to rent Kawhi and the Raptors are going to a place they've never been before and may not see again for a while if he leaves. But they still get to taste the magic spectacle that is the NBA Finals.