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With Kawhi Leonard, Raptors finds the success that holds



TORONTO – Twenty-four seasons, 1,920 regular-season games, 18 playoff series, 99 playoff games.

It took until the 100th posteason game in franchise history, but Toronto Raptors got their first N.B.A. final appearance with a 100-96 victory on their home floor against Milwaukee Bucks Saturday, winning the Eastern Conference finals in six games.

Success has been fleeting for the only remaining N.B.A. franchise in Canada. Toronto's first draft election, Damon Stoudamire in 1995, won the Rookie of the Year Award but demanded a trade and was in Portland before the end of his third season.

Vince Carter gave Raptors their first taste of national attention, with his staggering performance at the 2000 slam dunk competition during the All-Star weekend and a playoff duel with Allen Iverson a year later. But in 2004 he also demanded a trade and ended a golden era before it even started.

Chris Bosh was the next superstar in the queue, but he only managed two first round exits in his seven seasons with Raptors before leaving in the free agency in 2010 to join LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami.

DeMar DeRozan flourished into a star during his nine years with the team, but Masai Ujiri, Raptor's president, got tired of the team's annual playoff flameouts, and last summer DeRozan, one player who had declared his wish about staying a Toronto Raptor for life.

This trade sent an anesthetized DeRozan to San Antonio Spurs for the quiet and talented Kawhi Leonard, who was a year away from the free agency.

He was a significant risk to Toronto. But he also gave Raptors exactly what they needed in an eastern conference finally released from James & # 39; dominance that had become a member of the Los Angeles Lakers: a two-way superstar who could be the best player in any playoff series.

Trade has been validated in every way during Leonard's historic postseason run, which gave the NBA its first Game 7 series sounding buzzer, against Philadelphia 76ers in the second round. He is already third among the franchise's career postseason scorers, then only DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Leonard has 11 games of at least 30 points in this season.

He is a dominant scorer, but his all-round game has also been shown. Raptors won the last four games in their series against Bucks after Toronto Coach Nick Nurse made Leonard the lead defender against Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 3. In match 5 on Thursday, Leonard notched a high nine career helping with 35 points in one road victory. On Saturday with a N.B.A. final berth at stake, Leonard grabbed a high 17 rebounds career and added 27 points, punishing his best player play in the playoffs with a thunderous one-handed slam over antetokounmpo in the fourth quarter.

after Game 2, the bucks were two wins away from an Eastern Conference Championship and were 10-1 in the postseason after 60 victories in the normal season. In four games, Leonard Milwaukee's magical season deleted by being the best player at both ends of the floor. In a single playoff race, Leonard has delivered more memorable moments to Raptors than anyone in the franchise's 24-year history.

On media day in September at the start of the season after the formal introduction of Leonard into a raptor's uniform, Ujiri was frustrated by journalists who were wondering if Toronto was perceived in NBA circles as a team and a city who is able to persuade a superstar of Leonard's caliber to stay in the long term.

"We have nothing to apologize for," said Ujiri. "This is a beautiful city. We are blessed to be one of the NBA teams, one who is not in America. I cannot believe that a beautiful city like this would not believe in itself."

Saturday , eight months after their partnership officially started, Ujiri stood beside Leonard when they accepted the Eastern Conference championship trophy in front of their home fans.

"Kawhi is the best player in the world and we are happy that he is in Toronto," said Ujiri.

Shortly after the trophy, Leonard said, "I don't care to be the best player. I want to be the best team."

After many years of trying to break through, Raptors can now call themselves the best team in the Eastern Conference. They are four victories away from a championship, and on Thursday the N.B.A. The finals start in Canada for the first time in league history.

Saturday's victory was an unburdening of two and a half decades of frustration for a fan base that has continued to grow as the popularity of basketball in Canada has risen. Two other major sports franchises in the city are in the midst of the threshold of the championship. Toronto Blue Jays has not won the World Series since 1993. The Toronto Maple Leafs won the last Stanley Cup in 1967.

Raptors have the opportunity to make history for not just the franchise but for the city of Toronto. For the first time, the fan base doesn't have to wake up in the past or wonder about the uncertain future of Leonard's free agency decision. It can live in the present, rooting for a team that has shown what can be.

Leonards postseason run will be talked about in Toronto for decades to come. Maybe there's another chapter left to be written, starting Thursday at home against the Golden State Warriors.


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