By Rory Carroll
OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) – The Toronto Raptors delivered Canada its first NBA title with a 114-110 victory over the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors on Thursday that set off a country-wide celebration.
With a nation hanging on their every shot, Canada’s only NBA team put the finishing touches to a remarkable 4-2 series upset that denied the Warriors a fourth championship in five years.
“I can’t really think right now, this is crazy. This is awesome man,” said Toronto guard Kyle Lowry. “Toronto! Canada! We brought it home baby! We brought it home!”
When the final buzzer sounded, jubilant Raptors fans flooded the streets of downtown Toronto for a night of celebration not seen in the city since Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays last won a World Series title in 1993.
Toronto forward Kawhi Leonard, who arrived in a blockbuster trade with the San Antonio Spurs last July after an injury limited his season to nine games, was named the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player after averaging 28.5 points during the series.
“Last summer I was going through a lot. I had a great support system, I just kept working hard, working hard and had my mind set on this goal right here,” said Leonard, who last season was limited to nine games due to a quadriceps injury.
“I came to a team, a new coach, and that mindset was the same as mine. This is what I play basketball for, this is what I work out for all summer, during the season and I’m happy that my hard work paid off.”
Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam each had 26 points for Toronto while sharp-shooting Warriors guard Klay Thompson, who left the game with an injury in the third quarter, had 30 points.
Despite playing against a more playoff-seasoned opponent, the Raptors proved unflappable throughout the series and whenever the Warriors looked set to seize momentum Toronto would use some smart passes and precise shooting to maintain control.
“I thought they really fought hard, they were tough-minded,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of his team. “They didn’t seem like this was wearing on them at all. Two months of playoff basketball, they never seemed tired to me.”
The Warriors, who lost Kevin Durant to a ruptured Achilles in Game Five, were dealt another crushing blow late in the third quarter of a tight game when Thompson came down awkwardly after a shot attempt.
Thompson, who was fouled on the play, was in obvious pain and headed toward the locker room but suddenly reappeared to shoot his free throws, which if he did not shoot would have made him ineligible to come back later in the game.
But after making both free throws Thompson went to the Warriors locker room and was later seen walking on crutches.
“When Klay goes down and is out for the game, it’s just sort of a, you got to be kidding me, like this has to stop,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
“But it’s just the way it’s gone. I don’t know if it’s related to five straight seasons of playing a hundred plus games and just all the wear and tear, but it’s devastating.”
The loss sends the Warriors into an offseason of uncertainty given some of their top players, including Durant and Thompson, are eligible to become free agents.
The Raptors made a furious start to Game Six and nailed seven three pointers to build an early nine-point lead but the Warriors responded and cut the deficit to 33-32 by the end of a first quarter in which both teams flexed their offensive muscle.
The teams continued to throw everything they had at each other in a basketball version of a heavyweight prize fight that saw 14 lead changes during a wild first half in which Lowry had 21 points to put Toronto ahead 60-57 at the break.
Toronto kept up their torrid pace after the half but the Warriors, a team known for their third-quarter dominance, refused to be buried and were starting to take control with Thompson leading the charge until he went down suddenly.
When healthy the Warriors are a near-unstoppable group, one that has been a fixture in the NBA Finals for the last five years but injuries ultimately proved their undoing.
Despite the injuries, the Warriors were in it right up until the final minute where Stephen Curry missed a three-point jumper with eight second remaining that would have put his team ahead 113-111.
“We’ll be thinking about this one, it’s tough,” said Curry, who had 21 points in the loss. “But our DNA and who we are and the character that we have on this team, I wouldn’t bet against us being back on this stage next year and going forward.
“So really proud of the way that we fought until the end and this five-year run’s been awesome, but definitely don’t think it’s over.”
(Reporting by Rory Carroll; Writing by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Peter Rutherford and Sudipto Ganguly)