The Raptors aren't the Boston Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers. Where those more hallowed franchises might have extensive halls of fame, Toronto's could comfortably fit in a janitor's closet. Aside from a few flashes of being slightly better than mediocre, it's been an excruciating 21-year existence for fans of this team.
Maybe in the grand scheme of things, the Raptors finally breaking the seal and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals doesn't matter. Snide comments about the swift loss to Cleveland that is sure to come have been aplenty over the last 24 hours. And they're not unfounded, either; barring a couple hundred random strokes of luck, this exhilarating playoff ride isn't ending with an NBA Title coming north.
After Sunday, though, none of that matters. With their 116-89 deconstruction of the Miami Heat in Game 7, the 2015-16 Raptors became unrivaled in team history, their best player achieved Toronto sports immortality, and the franchise officially entered the market for a larger space to house its hall of fame. From this point forward, it's all deliciously fattening gravy.
The story of the Raptors has always been one of stars failing to translate their individual brilliance into landmark playoff moments. For all of Chris Bosh's greatness, he left for Miami in 2010 with just a pair of nondescript first-round playoff losses in the bag. Vince Carter had some electrifying playoff showings in that early 2000s run, but the moment that still stands out from his tenure is one that sent the Raptors spiraling toward the mostly uninspiring 15-year journey that preceded what went down on Sunday afternoon.
Up until the final five games of the second round, it looked like Kyle Lowry was en route to join the ranks of Bosh and Carter. His prolonged, internal-crisis-inciting shooting slump looked like it would be the latest reason why the Raptors couldn't quite reach their potential.
"I've gotta pick this shit up," said Lowry after going 3-of-13 in Game 1 against the Heat in between lonesome shooting sessions on the Air Canada Centre court.
Boy, did he ever pick that shit up.
Over the final five games against Miami, Lowry was every bit the superstar that earned a 10th-place finish in MVP voting. He hit daggers, he defended his ass off, he made his trademark tiny-but-enormous plays and he crushed narratives. From Game 3 on, Lowry's numbers were Lowry-like: 27.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.4 steals and a blistering 48.6 percent mark from long range.
"That's just what he does - he's been doing it all year," said DeMar DeRozan after the game. "He won us countless games, and he's doing it now. I don't expect nothing less."
After weeks of walking the ball up the court and taking chunks out of the shot clock before activating a listless Toronto offense, Lowry charged down the court like a bull for much of Game 7. When he was at his best on Sunday, Lowry would burst through a maze of Heat defenders, emerge unscathed on the other side, and juxtapose his furious drives with delicate finishes. Those attacking flourishes were augmented by some vintage pull-up threes that he is once again knocking down with a cold-blooded confidence. With everything he did, Lowry brought the kind of aggressiveness and bravado that unlocks a different level of good for this Raptors team.
Even when he hasn't shot well, the Raptors have been passable with Lowry on the floor and hopeless when he sits. Prior to Game 7, the Raptors were 34.8 points better per 100 possessions with Lowry playing (+3.1 ON / -31.7 (!?!) OFF), a differential that ballooned a further 2.4 points as a result of his incredible Game 7.
"I thought the moment, and what it means, I think tonight was huge for him," said Casey of Lowry. "Not only offensively -- I thought Kyle's defense was extraordinary. I thought he was into the basketball, some of his best pick-and-roll defense, hounding the ball, being into the ball, dictating direction was huge."
Casey was also complimentary of the way DeRozan was unswayed by the magnitude of the situation. He scored 28 points -- many in times of need -- on 12-of-29 shooting, and was especially effective once he stopped going out of his way to "empty the clip" in the second half.
But don't get it twisted -- this was Lowry's game. At this point he's pretty clearly the second name you'll think of going forward when listing all-time great Raptors. Bosh might have been a more statistically prolific player for longer, but Lowry's glorious peak has elevated the Raptors from the depths of irrelevance. The question now isn't where Lowry ranks, but how much more he has to do to usurp Carter atop the ladder. He's not there yet, but Game 7 brought him a Bismack Biyombo-sized leap closer.
One thing that could quickly get Lowry some consideration as the greatest Raptor ever would be a miraculous upset against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
"Our goal was to play as long as possible," said Lowry on whether or not he's satisfied with the second round win. "Yes, we're excited but we wanna continue to get four more wins and get to the Finals. We know we've got a tough task ahead, but it's still basketball. They gotta lace 'em up, we gotta lace 'em up and go at it."