Masai Ujiri's aggressive moves have Raptors in NBA Finals vs. Warriors


Masai Ujiri's aggressive moves have Raptors in NBA Finals vs. Warriors

TORONTO -- The gamble of all gambles.

After the Toronto Raptors rattled off five straight seasons of 48-plus wins, including a 59-23 record in 2017-18, president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri went for broke last summer.

Despite posting a 320-238 record over seven seasons in The Six, Ujiri let coach Dwane Casey go. Despite four All-Star appearances, Ujiri sent leading scorer DeMar DeRozan packing.

It was a roll of the dice, and so far, Ujiri looks like a genius.

The Raptors couldn’t get over the hump. After a series of disappointing setbacks in the conference semifinals, Ujiri had to mix things up. Casey and DeRozan weren’t part of the problem, but they also couldn’t come up with the answer that Toronto was looking for.

“Give Dwane Casey credit, he prepared us for this, too,” Ujiri said Wednesday. “This is not something that started in one year. I don't know that a team can just start in one year. So I think, I want to say that Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan are a part of this, they are part of our journey and how far this has come.”

Beginning with Game 1 on Thursday night, the Raptors will host the NBA Finals, and the city of Toronto is in love. They are in love with Kawhi Leonard, who was obtained in the DeRozan trade from the San Antonio Spurs. They are in love with the team that is tasked with bringing the first NBA championship to Canada.

From the guy working the coffee counter at the hotel to the signs outside every Tim Horton's, it’s easy to see that this is the moment Raptors fans have yearned for since the franchise entered the league in 1995.

“It's surreal, but I think when you put the team together and we all dream of a championship, we all think about that, and I think the change was hard at the time, but we knew the kind of player we were getting [in Leonard], and if we overcame and we dealt with all the issues that we felt that could come together," Ujiri said. "I think we were all positive about this kind of moment and all dreamt about it."

The Raptors doubled down at the NBA trade deadline, bringing in veterans Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin to solidify the rotation. Under new coach Nick Nurse, Toronto finished the season 58-24, good enough for second place in the Eastern Conference.

After beating the Orlando Magic 4-1 in the first round of the NBA playoffs and surviving a seven-game series against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second, Toronto dropped two straight to the Milwaukee Bucks to begin the Eastern Conference finals. Riding the incredible play of Leonard, the Raptors then reeled off four straight wins to advance to The Finals.

“Kawhi's quiet, but he's relentless,” Ujiri said. “I tell you, his work ethic is almost crazy how his regimen, taking care of his body and doing all the work.”

It’s the ultimate risk. Leonard is a superstar, but he was coming off an injury-riddled 2017-18 season, and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Despite the incredible run, Leonard hasn’t committed to Toronto after this season.

“I said it from Day 1, we are going to be us,” Ujiri said. “I think Kawhi Leonard is a superstar, and we're going to treat him like a superstar, but we're also going to do all the natural things that I think will help us get to that level, to convince Kawhi that this is the place for him.”

As for conversations between the sides? The focus is on winning a ring for the city of Toronto and to deal with the rest of it at the appropriate time.

“The future conversations I've had with Kawhi are about the Golden State Warriors, and that's his mindset," Ujiri said. "His mindset is what is at hand right now, what's the job right now. And the job right now is to beat the Golden State Warriors. I think when he came here, he made it clear he wanted to be healthy. He wants to play on a good team that would compete.”

Ujiri and the rest of Toronto have done everything in their power to convince the star forward to stick around, but he holds all the cards. Maybe a championship banner and the lure of more would give the Raptors an advantage.

[RELATED: McCaw admits that he would change his Warriors exit if he could]

Then again, this might be the ultimate one-and-done situation. Only Leonard knows where he’ll play next season, and he might not even be 100 percent at this moment.

Win or lose, Ujiri, the Raptors and the city of Toronto have made their case. All they can do now is hope that they’ve done enough.

Warriors' Steph Curry continues activism with police brutality protest

Warriors' Steph Curry continues activism with police brutality protest

On the corner of Perkins and Grand in Oakland, Warriors guard Stephen Curry put both of his hands up and spoke a sentence black folks have been chanting for much of their American existence. 

"Hands up!" Curry yelled amongst fellow protestors near Oakland's Lake Merritt. "Don't shoot!"

On the same block, Curry took a knee in protest of police brutality that has crippled Black America. The image was a reminder of the activist Curry has become off the court in recent years.

His latest act came in the wake of George Floyd's tragic death in Minneapolis police custody. Floyd -- a 46-year-old Black male -- died after officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd was detained after allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill and resisting arrest, although nearby security cameras showed he didn't resist. In his final moments, Floyd could be heard screaming, "I can't breathe" and "mama." 

The killing has inspired protests all over the world. Wednesday's protest -- organized by Curry's teammate Juan Toscano Anderson -- drew an estimated 300 people to walk around Lake Merritt. Fellow Warriors Klay Thompson and Damion Lee also attended the protest.

The location of Curry's kneel is noteworthy. Lake Merritt is situated three miles away from North Oakland, where the Black Panther Party was formed. A mile away from the intersection Curry kneeled, the Panthers started the free breakfast program for kids. For much of its history, Oakland has been the country's epicenter for change and Curry was a part of the latest iteration. 

Social causes aren't new for the guard. Last summer, Curry financed the creation of the Howard University golf program. With his contribution, the Bison men's team will play in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, while the women will play as independents. In addition, he outfitted them all in Under Armour apparel -- the shoe company that sponsors him -- and funded three scholarships for the school. 

In 2014, before Game 5 of Golden State's first-round playoff series against the Clippers, Curry was among a group of players ready to boycott if Clippers owner Donald Sterling wasn't banned by NBA commissioner Adam Silver following leaked racist remarks. Three years later, he said President Donald Trump's words were rooted in "racism" after he criticized LeBron James' intelligence in a tweet. Curry even spoke out against Under Armour in 2017, after CEO Kevin Plank called Trump an "asset" to the United States.

“If there is a situation where I can look at myself in the mirror and say they don’t have my best intentions, they don’t have the right attitude about taking care of people,” Curry told The Mercury News in 2017. “If I can say the leadership is not in line with my core values, then there is no amount of money, there is no platform I wouldn’t jump off if it wasn’t in line with who I am. So that’s a decision I will make every single day when I wake up. If something is not in line with what I’m about, then, yeah, I definitely need to take a stance in that respect.”

Curry's latest act comes on the same day New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees doubled down on his take that athletes shouldn't kneel during the national anthem. 

[RELATED: Poole: Brees reveals he's part of problem, not solution]

Brees' comments are a common retort for an uninformed person of privilege. Feigning patriotism behind the flag while ignoring why Colin Kaepernick and Curry kneeled in the first place. Disregarding that Kaepernick consulted a green beret before his demonstration and kneeled in respect for the anthem. Brees' stance, like that of many other similar public figures, is lazy, ignorant and dangerous. 

Curry, unlike Brees, will be on the right side of history at his current pace. 

[RUNNIN' PLAYS PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Steph Curry among Warriors at Juan Toscano-Anderson's Oakland protest

Steph Curry among Warriors at Juan Toscano-Anderson's Oakland protest

How did Warriors superstar Steph Curry spend his Wednesday afternoon?

He took part in a peaceful protest against police brutality and systemic racism at Lake Merritt in Oakland.

Curry and his wife, Ayesha, kneeled during the protest.

Juan Toscano-Anderson, an Oakland native and Warriors forward, organized the event.

"No matter the color of your skin, where you're from, how much money you got -- it doesn't matter," Toscano-Anderson said to those who gathered. "We're all human beings. We're all here for the same purpose.

"Right now, it's about black people. But for humanity, there's people all over the world being oppressed. We're just trying to take a step in the right direction."

[RELATED: Brees still believes kneeling is 'disrespecting the flag']

Additional members of the Warriors arrived after the walk began.

Protests around the country continue in response to George Floyd's tragic death last week while in police custody in Minneapolis.