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' Steve Kerr says trade rumors don't affect D'Angelo Russell

Warriors' Steve Kerr says trade rumors don't affect D'Angelo Russell

D'Angelo Russell is rapidly approaching a date some NBA observers have circled since the Warriors acquired him this summer.

Golden State can trade Russell as soon as Sunday, Dec. 15, and the 23-year-old has been the source of trade speculation during his time in the Bay Area. The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski reported Wednesday, citing sources that the Minnesota Timberwolves "remain interested in Russell" and that the guard "seems to be realistic in understanding that he may not be long for the Warriors once Steph Curry and Klay Thompson return to full health."

Russell is averaging a career-high 22.4 points per game this season to go with 6.1 assists and 3.1 rebounds, serving as the top offensive option in the absence of his All-Star teammates. He knew he wouldn't play much with Thompson this season as he recovers from a torn ACL, but Curry's broken hand threw a wrench into the Warriors' -- and thus Russell's -- prospects this season. Warriors coach Steve Kerr praised how Russell has handled the rumors surrounding him. 

"Money doesn't buy peace of mind," Kerr said Friday morning (H/T San Francisco Chronicle's Connor Letourneau). "It doesn't buy a sense of belonging, a sense of, 'Alright, this is my team.' If there's speculation that you're going to be traded all the time, I don't care how much money you make, I don't care who you are. That's tough. That's no fun to deal with, and this season has been nowhere close to what D'Angelo thought it would be when he first signed with us.

"There's no Steph. We're struggling to win games. He's had his own injuries, and we're throwing all kinds of different lineups out there based on the other injuries we've faced." 

Russell has played in just 15 of the Warriors' 27 games this season, playing on a team that looks far more like the Los Angeles Lakers of his first two seasons than the playoff-contending Brooklyn Nets a year ago -- let alone the reigning Western Conference champion Warriors. 

[RELATED: How Warriors' Chriss earning chance to start at center]

Kerr, who entered this season with the highest winning percentage in NBA history (.785), is as aware of Golden State's dramatically different reality as anyone. He said it has only brought out the best in Russell. 

"So given all that, he's played really well, and he's been a great teammate and he's doing everything he needs to do to solidify his position here," Kerr continued. "But this is the NBA here, and we never know what's coming, what's happening. So, it's a difficult position to be in in general, but for him in particular it's strange set of circumstances and he's handling it really well." 

Whether or not the Warriors trade Russell, it's clear Kerr holds him in high regard.

Watch Warriors' Ky Bowman dominate for Santa Cruz in G League debut

Watch Warriors' Ky Bowman dominate for Santa Cruz in G League debut

Warriors two-way guard Ky Bowman made his G League debut Friday night in Santa Cruz.

He dominated the Agua Caliente Clippers of Ontario. 

The Boston College product could have scored 40 points if he really wanted to, but he picked his spots and made sure his teammates were getting good looks.

After shootaround in Utah on Friday, Warriors coach Steve Kerr was asked what Bowman can work on while he's with the Sea Dubs.

"He's got a really aggressive mindset -- which I like -- but there are still circumstances and situations where he needs to think more pass," Kerr said. "And more strategic, rather than just score, score, score."

Bowman clearly listened to the eight-time NBA champion.

[RELATEDWhy Dubs might be very active before, after trade deadline]

Also, "Sky Bowman" was on full display.

The 22-year-old will be back in action Sunday afternoon as Santa Cruz faces the Northern Arizona Suns. Watch the game at 2:00 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area.

Follow @DrewShiller on Twitter and Instagram