The making of a contender: A timeline of the Raptors' run to the 2019 NBA Finals

This was a long road for the Raptors.

Ever since Toronto was awarded an expansion team in 1993, the Raptors have been trying to make it to the NBA Finals.

The Raptors had teams with Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady and another with eventual two-time NBA champion Chris Bosh, but they could never get over the hump to get to the Finals.

That is until Saturday, when Toronto earned its first finals berth behind 27 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists from Kawhi Leonard, who carried the Raptors to the promised land.

But just how did the Raptors get to this point?

What key acquisitions carried them, what performances pushed them to the next level and what draft picks paved the path for this first trip?

Again, it wasn’t easy, but there were some key moments along the way.

Timeline of the Raptors’ run to the NBA Finals

July 5, 2012

Kyle Lowry was one of the players many blamed for the Raptors’ 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals loss to the Cavaliers, but without the veteran point guard, the Raptors don’t make the finals in 2019.

Toronto acquired Lowry from the Rockets in a 2012 trade and all he has done since is help the team to its highest winning percentage over any six-year span (.623).

Lowry got a lot of flak for his struggles in the East semifinals this year against the 76ers, but he was absolutely huge in the finals against the Bucks averaging 19.2 points, 5.2 assists, 5.5 rebounds and shooting 35.8% from beyond the arc (19 of 53).

Kyle Lowry had to be very good for the Raptors to get to the NBA Finals and he was just that.

June 23, 2016

The after-effects of this day were felt throughout the 2019 Eastern Conference finals.

On that night, Toronto took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Soon after, the team acquired Fred VanVleet as an undrafted free agent to develop him on their G League team.

What those two players combined for in the Eastern Conference finals was extraordinary.

VanVleet averaged 9.7 points for the series, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. Over the final three games, he scored a combined 48 points (16 per game) while shooting 82.3% from beyond the arc (14 of 17). Without VanVleet, the Raptors likely don’t win that series, or at the least, it’s probably heading to seven games.

As for Siakam — who is a candidate to win Most Improved Player this season — the native of Douala, Cameroon, was a force on the defensive end, especially checking MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Siakam put up very good numbers on the offensive end, as well, including a 25-point, 11-rebound performance in an absolutely vital Game 3 victory that brought the series to 2-1 in favor of Milwaukee.

June 23, 2016, will go down as a day vital to the success of these Raptors.

May 7, 2018

There is no more important date to the Raptors’ 2019 NBA Finals run than May 7, 2018. On that day, the Raptors lost to the Cavaliers, 128-93, to fall in the Eastern Conference semifinals in four games.

This series sweep was devastating for the Raptors. They fell by an average of 14 points, and in the two games they had chances, they allowed LeBron James — the one player who they absolutely could not allow to get an open shot — to get open shots to win.

This loss changed the shape of the Raptors: Dwane Casey, despite winning coach of the year for 2017-18, was fired; DeMar DeRozan, who made four All-Star teams with Toronto, was traded; and Masai Ujiri went out and got Kawhi Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, in the deal for DeRozan.

Every one of those moves was felt throughout the playoffs this year as Leonard became just the second player to score 35 or more points in seven postseason games, Nick Nurse — who replaced Casey — outcoached the Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer in the Eastern Conference finals and Danny Green contributed defensively after coming over in the deal from San Antonio.

As rough as May 7, 2018, was for Toronto, if the lopsided series sweep against the Cavs doesn’t happen, the Raptors probably don’t make the Finals this season.

July 18, 2018

This is the day the Raptors franchise changed forever — or at least for one great year.

After a season marred by injuries in which Leonard played only nine games for the Spurs, the former NBA Finals MVP wanted out. He asked for a trade and every team in the NBA was after him.

The Raptors are the ones that got him and they paid a hefty price. Toronto gave up its best player in DeRozan, a budding solid role-player in Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick in the 2019 draft. What they got in return was Leonard and Green … and a lot of risk.

Would Leonard be the same player everyone had seen before? Would the team regret dealing DeRozan? Could the Raptors even collapse and lose a high draft pick? Ujiri took a massive chance in making that move but it was one that completely paid off.

Even if Leonard leaves in free agency after this season — which he might — the Raptors made their first NBA Finals. And in the process may persuade the forward to stay. Without this move, the Raptors almost surely don’t make the finals, with it, they undeniably did. So in the end, it was worth it.

May 12, 2019 

The day Leonard put the Raptors on his back.

Leonard got virtually no help from his teammates in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the 76ers, so he decided to do it himself in Game 7.

The forward was not particularly efficient, but he was determined as he put up a career-high 38 shots in the deciding game, trying to will the Raptors to a win.

He did exactly that as he hit possibly the craziest buzzer-beater in NBA history with a bouncing, bobbling, wobbling lob that took four hops to fall through and win the game and the series for the Raptors.

This was the first time a Game 7 has been won on a buzzer-beater and Leonard did it for Toronto. This was the best day in Raptors franchise history, until …

May 25, 2019 

Leonard had done everything he could for the Raptors in the conference semifinals, so his teammates finally decided to give him some help in the East finals.

We already mentioned what Siakam, Lowry and VanVleet did in this series, but a couple of 3-pointers from Marc Gasol cannot be forgotten, nine points off the bench from Serge Ibaka were huge and another nine from Norman Powell came in handy, as well.

While Leonard willed his team to a win in the conference semifinals, his teammates did all they could to assist him in the conference finals. Oh yeah, and Leonard dunked all over Giannis in the third quarter of Game 6 and went off throughout the first 12 minutes out of halftime.

He also hit some big free throws down the stretch and grabbed pivotal offensive rebounds.

The Leonard show was on full display, but this one was still a team effort, and can be marked down as one of the few times in the playoffs the Raptors truly started to look like a team playing off of each other and together.

That’s a great way to go into the finals — the team’s first.

It’s been a long, crazy trip for the Raptors to get to their first NBA Finals, but it was an entertaining one that doesn’t happen without Lowry, Siakam, VanVleet, Leonard, Nurse and Ujiri. And now, the Raptors have earned the right to play against possibly the most imposing dynasty in modern NBA history in the Warriors.

Game 1 is at 9 p.m. ET Thursday in Toronto, a city that has waited a long time for this.