TORONTO, Canada—Tensions were high North of the border. Raptors Uprising GC had stumbled, fallen short after failing to make the postseason for the first time in franchise history. One long, unprecedented year later and times are much different in Toronto.
Recording a combined 16-14 regular season record between Seasons 1 and 2, MLSE Esports Manager Shane Talbot was left in the offseason questioning what was next for his team. The talent was there, but the results unfortunately weren’t.
Looking back, those growing pains may just have paved the way for what has been an extraordinary third campaign.
“We came into 2020 having learned a lot from our first two seasons in terms of the formula for success in the league,” said MLSE Esports Manager Shane Talbot.
In this case, the recipe for success was chemistry, talent, and a group of players who were willing to buy into a team centered around their star point guard.
One thing that’s never wavered has been Talbot’s belief in his first-ever draft choice, Kenny Got Work. Ahead of Season 3, the team’s general manager decided to deploy Kenny solely as a point guard, an ask the natural PG relished after having to appear at all five positions last season while the team struggled to find their identity.
“These guys here in Toronto, they believe in me and for us not to be a playoff team at least, it’s kind of a let down to myself,” said Kenny Got Work on Mar. 13, prior to the start of the season. “I feel like I let the organization down, my teammates, and I’m just going to do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
In order for Kenny to live up to his word, next steps were to surround him with the right pieces. That process started with retaining one of the league’s best in Sick One, who was acquired via midseason trade from Cavs Legion GC last season. In 2019, we saw the centre develop a strong on-court relationship with Kenny, teasing their potential.
Enter Timelycook, ReeceMode, and Legit 973 via the NBA 2K League Draft—the trio that would completely buy in and round out the greatest starting five that the NBA 2K League has seen to date.
Particularly special about this group of five was their preexisting sense of familiarity: Timelycook, ReeceMode, and Kenny Got Work were all part of the infamous Pro-Am team “Still Trill”, while New Jersey natives Sick One and Legit 973 became the first brothers to play on the same NBA 2K League team.
That family-like bond was something that Raptors Uprising leaned on as they were forced to navigate and overcome the challenges of a global pandemic.
— x-Raptors Uprising GC (@RaptorsGC) July 5, 2020
In isolation with one another, the team would put in countless hours at the Bell Fibe House preparing for the 2020 NBA 2K League season. When it was announced that the league would be shifting to remote play, Toronto was ready and able to adapt seamlessly, beginning Season 3 on a positive note unlike other years in the past.
It started with a head-turning win over reigning NBA 2K League finalists 76ers GC on May 5. A tidy (2-0 series) sweep got the ball rolling for Raptors Uprising, as Kenny Got Work would score 51 points in the season-opener. One night later, Toronto produced a thrilling come-from-behind (2-1 series) victory over Wizards District Gaming, a team many analysts had dubbed as a contender prior to the start of the season.
In just one week, Raptors Uprising had put the rest of the league on notice.
Taking the NBA 2K League by storm with displays of never-before-seen ball movement and uncompromising team defence, wins against Grizz Gaming, Hornets Venom GT, Knicks Gaming and Hawks Talon GC would round out a perfect month of May as Toronto were off to their best start in franchise history at 6-0.
Still, the job wasn’t finished.
Taking it one game at a time, Raptors Uprising would carry their momentum into June. A (2-0 series) win over NetsGC on June 5 would give Toronto sole possession of first place, setting up a marquee matchup against Season 1 and 2 regular-season giants Blazer5 Gaming. With the Raps holding an 0-4 all-time record against the formidable B5, the two teams would go head-to-head in a back-and-forth west coast battle. Portland would take it to the brink, forcing overtime in Game 3, but Raptors Uprising would prove to be too much to handle, improving to 8-0 on the season.
Even with Kenny Got Work having an off night for his standards, whether it was Timelycook coming up with one of his league-leading 4.5 steals per game, ReeceMode knocking down a momentum-swinging three, Sick One coming up with a big play down low, or Legit 973 making a nice read, it was evident that someone always stepped up for this Raptors Uprising team when it mattered.
And with one game remaining before the first in-season tournament of the year, the team would put their depth on full display. Unfortunately, for Boston fans, it’d come at the expense of the lowly Celtics Crossover Gaming—a matchup in which Toronto established a new single-game scoring record (109 points).
A 2-0 series sweep assured Raptors Uprising the No. 1 seed heading into the $180,000 USD TIPOFF Tournament, powered by AT&T. The team would go 7-0, blowing by Kings Guard Gaming in the final (2-0 series) to capture its first banner in franchise history. Kenny Got Work would be named tournament MVP for his efforts, but perhaps more importantly, the franchise’s first taste of victory was one that would keep them hungry and set the tone for the remainder of their record-breaking season.
Coming off the tournament win and dialing back into the regular season, Raptors Uprising would defeat a pair of Florida foes, Magic Gaming and Heat Check Gaming, to wrap up June at 11-0 and tie the NBA 2K League record for best start to a regular season.
With much to celebrate, Toronto would enjoy Canada Day in the backyard of the Bell Fibe House along the Lakeshore in Toronto before preparing for a matchup vs. Gen.G Tigers of Shanghai on July 2 with more than the 12-0 league record at stake. A win would make Raptors Uprising the fastest team ever to clinch a playoff spot, but the Season 3 expansion side refused to make it easy. The Tigers, based out of California, would become one of three teams in the regular season to force Raptors Uprising to a third and decisive game, but would ultimately fall short.
Winners of 12 straight, carrying a similar mentality they had going into THE TIPOFF, the record-breaking squad wanted to enter the second in-season tournament of the year on a relatively high note with one tune-up game remaining. And in Season 3, when they set out to do something, it generally meant mission accomplished. The team would once again establish a new NBA 2K League scoring record for the second time this season, scoring 112 points in their (2-0 series) win over Pacers Gaming on July 16.
Playing their best basketball of the season, the $260,000 USD TURN Tournament powered by AT&T was next, posing a new challenge for Raptors Uprising as the “archetype ban” concept was introduced, forcing the team to utilize a different looking lineup for the first time this season. Would it slow Kenny Got Work and the rest of the supporting cast down? No chance. Toronto would once again go a perfect 5-0 in the single-elimination competition to take home their second banner, becoming the only franchise to win the first two in-season tournaments of the year.
Despite reasons to get complacent, Raptors Uprising were anything but down the stretch and would continue to venture down a path no NBA 2K League franchise has yet to step foot on.
With wins in Week 11 over a pair of west-coast foes in Kings Guard Gaming and Lakers Gaming, Toronto would become the first team to reach 15 games in a regular season, while clinching first-place and the top seed overall heading into the playoffs in the process.
The only thing left standing between Raptors Uprising and the perfect regular season was one opponent: Cavs Legion. And coming off a monstrous season, Sick One still had something left to prove to his former team. In his first matchup against Cleveland since being traded to Toronto, the centre dominated to the tune of a 10-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double on Aug. 7 to help put a bow on his new team’s historic campaign.
Raptors Uprising officially became the first team to achieve an undefeated regular season, going a perfect 16-0 to clinch their spot in the quarter-finals of the 2020 NBA 2K League Playoffs.
“Season 3 so far has been perfect,” said ReeceMode, the sharpshooting rookie out of Chicago. “16-0 might never happen again, so what better history to be a part of!”
“The group’s unique blend of talent, hard work and chemistry made it clear we had something special this season but we know the job is not finished yet,” added Talbot. “Our focus now solely shifts to bringing an NBA 2K League championship to Toronto.”
Now the prototype for future success, Raptors Uprising will turn their attention to the postseason, which will take place Aug. 19-29. In past years, no No.1 seed has yet to make it past the first round. Will Toronto rewrite the narrative in 2020 and continue to make history?
As long as they stick to their script—led by their star point guard and the unanimous front-runner for MVP in 2020—Raptors Uprising believe they have a real chance.
— x-Raptors Uprising GC (@RaptorsGC) May 25, 2020
Since shifting solely to PG, Kenny has enjoyed a record-breaking season thus far which has included eight individual accolades since May: four Player of the Week (Weeks 1, 3, 8 and 11), two Player of the Month (May and July) and two Tournament Most Valuable Player (THE TIPOFF and THE TURN) awards. He’s established new career-bests in virtually every category, notching 35.3 points per game to lead the NBA 2K League in scoring.
The third-year veteran has found an unspoken rhythm with his teammates, one that he believes will be enough to help this Raptors Uprising team reach the next level.
“I feel like this team is built around me, guys that believe in me, and that’s what you need in this league,” said Kenny Got Work. “That’s what you need to be a high-caliber team to make that championship run. You need guys that believe.”