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What the Raptors can learn from the 2021 NBA Finals

Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After a challenging and unpredictable NBA season, the Milwaukee Bucks were crowned 2021 NBA Champions on Tuesday night with an unforgettable performance. The Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns in six games to win their first NBA title since 1971 , exactly 50 years ago.

This year’s NBA season was full of ups and downs and, at one point, was even in question of continuing. With the height of the COVID-19 pandemic taking a toll on player safety and fan engagement, the 2021 NBA season was definitely a challenging journey for the Bucks to overcome. Ultimately, they pushed through the challenges of the pandemic and past the Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks to finally emerge out of the Eastern Conference. The last time they were in the Conference Finals they came up short to the 2019 Toronto Raptors squad…and we know how that turned out for them.

Unfortunately, as we know, this season the Raptors were unable to make the playoffs after a lacklustre season. Instead of competing with the Bucks in a playoff rematch, they had to watch the NBA Finals from their TVs at home.

Like us fans, the Raptors watched and studied the teams in this year’s finals while planning how to make changes to return to that same spot they reached in 2019. After hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy two years ago, there’s no question they want to add to their first championship.

With the conclusion of the NBA playoffs and watching the Milwaukee Bucks win the championship, there is a lot to learn this year on what makes a championship caliber team. Here are some things that the Raptors can take away from this years Finals and hopefully recreate the recipe for success for seasons in the future.

  1. Building From Within:

The Milwaukee Bucks have kept the same core for eight years and managed to build within their current system to produce a championship their first championship in 50 years. Since 2013, they built and developed around the young talents of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, transforming them into the stars they are today. Over an eight year process of adjusting coaching staffs, changing approaches and acquiring key pieces while still maintaining the same core, the Bucks were able to develop and construct an organization that fully bought into the same mindset and values. Giannis chose to re-sign with the Bucks in 2020 and was committed to the process of winning with a team that took a chance on him in the draft.

The Toronto Raptors were successful with this over the course of constructing their 2019 championship team. With players like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, the Raptors managed to develop within their system to turn these players into stars. The Raptors can take note that this is a good strategy to develop players who fully buy into the organization and construct a team with to address specific needs around a core. Internal development is something that the Raptors are known to be good at and should continue to do for the foreseeable future.

2. Role Players and an X-Factor:

The Bucks’ success came not only from their star players, but from a supporting cast who performed well in their respective roles. The presence of players like Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton and PJ Tucker all coming together in their respective roles complimented the stars and contributed to the ultimate success of the team. Jrue Holiday was acquired as the missing piece for the Bucks. He was the X-Factor of the series and showed his impact on both ends averaging 16.7 points, 9.3 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 2.2 steals in the Finals.

This is similar to the Raptors in 2019, who had role players like Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka, each of which had important roles and contributed largely to the overall team success. The Raptors X-Factor was Fred VanVleet, who emerged in the Finals on both ends similar to Holiday. Any championship team needs to have defined role players who can execute in their roles when asked to.

3. Fighting Through Adversity:

The Milwaukee Bucks faced a lot of adversity over the past couple seasons to get to where they are now. True championship mentality is fighting through adversity to achieve the ultimate goal. For this season specifically, handling safety protocols and playing through the COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge in itself, taking a toll on the league and players.

Challenges presented themselves in the playoffs with an injury to Giannis in the Eastern Conference Finals, resulting in him missing the final two games. Making it to the Finals, they fell behind 0-2 in the series and managed to fight back to win four straight games. Giannis came back from his injury to put on a historic performance, scoring over 40 points in three straight games.

Adversity is inevitable in any sport, and teams like the Raptors know how to face it head on. Before their championship run, the Raptors struggled to make it past the early rounds of the playoffs until finally pushing through. The season this year is another example of adversity that the Raptors will have to fight through for next season’s success.

4. Size and Physicality

We saw in the Finals that size and physicality played a huge part in Bucks’ success. One of the things the Raptors were missing this year was the presence of a large body who can handle play down low and in the post. We saw the physicality of Bucks taking a toll on Phoenix Suns, ultimately tiring them out and taking advantage down low in the paint and on the boards. The Bucks averaged 46.3 rebounds per game in the series, significantly higher than the Suns who only averaged 39.

For instance, in Game 5, the Bucks used a big lineup with Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis, Giannis, PJ Tucker and Middleton at the point guard spot. It was ultimately too much to handle when a team is larger and physically stronger than another, and this combined with skill and other role players will ultimately win a series. The Raptors will need to have a reliable big to go up against players like Giannis to protect the paint and score down low.

5. Superstar Presence

Of course, one of the most important things the Raptors can take away from the Finals, and any series, is having the presence of a superstar to carry the team over the edge. We’ve seen historically that every team that wins has a go-to superstar who can take over when it matters and win games for their team. Whether it’s Michael Jordan or LeBron James, every team needs their best player to be a superstar. This year’s superstar was Giannis Antentokounmpo. Giannis is a rare talent who is truly gifted with his physical frame. Having the presence of such a rare superstar big who can physically dominate really impacts the Bucks’ success. Giannis, along with other players stepping up to the superstar level, ultimately take a team to the next level and make them unbeatable.

It was no wonder why the Raptors tried to entice Giannis with coming to Toronto. They had a superstar in Kawhi Leonard for the 2019 Championship run, and will need someone to play at that caliber to get back to the top.

6. Home Court Advantage

We know the impact of home court advantage in any sport. Having a fan presence is huge for games of this magnitude. The Bucks had over 65,000 people outside of their arena in the Deer District showing support for their team.

The Raptors have some of the best fans in the league and of course the Deer District does not even come close to Jurassic Park. Basketball fans are the life of the NBA and it was great to have them back to give that edge to the home teams in the Finals. With restrictions easing up in Ontario, Raptors fans will get the chance to eventually come back and show support for their team in person.

In the End

Overall, the Raptors can take away many things from this years Finals and continue to improve for seasons to come. We have already shown we can do a lot of these things, as the 2021 Bucks are very similarly constructed to the 2019 Raptors. With the upcoming draft and free agency, hopefully the Raptors can continue to make moves and acquire the right pieces to bring us back to the championship level we were at two years ago.

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