As the seconds ticked down last night, the score hopelessly lopsided against the Raptors, the season coming to an end, it began. First, "let's go Raptors!" and then, as the clock hit zero: "We the North!" As ESPN's Doris Burke began her sideline interview with a victorious LeBron James, he stopped and looked around. He heard it, too.
The Raptors lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers last night 113-87 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Read that sentence again. It's hokey now to say no one expected the Raptors to be here -- though don't tell coach Dwane Casey that -- but as the fans began their cheering, as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan strode off the court for the final time, it really began to sink in. The Raptors may as well have been on the moon.
Toronto's wins against the Cavs in this series had come when everything went right for them and mostly wrong for Cleveland. It's not a sustainable recipe for success. As the Raptors pushed against the Cavs last night, they were always a few misses, or a bad four or five minute stretch away from disaster. The first half saw incessant foul calls, a bit of a brouhaha between Richard Jefferson and Jonas Valanciunas, a flagrant elbow whistled at Kevin Love's head, a lot of missed shots by Toronto, and a gradual strangulation delivered from the Cavs -- as of a python casually destroying a small mammal. It could have -- should have -- been grim.
Instead, in true Raptors fashion, there was a mini-run late in the game, an attempt by Lowry to keep things respectable. As the fourth quarter began, he was still flying around the court at full speed. The Cavs' lead was reduced to ten. The roar of the crowd started to increase once again; the viking funeral put on hold. It was a beautiful bittersweet moment, a eulogy and celebration all at once. LeBron flexed his muscles, the lead went back up, the benches eventually emptied, but the crowd kept cheering anyway.
"I think I was paying attention for the last two minutes. The crowd couldn't stop singing," said Bismack Biyombo. "The crowd has been very supportive to us. This is the first year that I've really felt like I was in a place where the fans love us 100 percent, they support us 100 percent, throughout the whole season, ups and downs, and it was an emotional moment."
I joked late in the game, as it became clear the Cavs were going to win, with a quote from the film Gladiator: "We who are about to die, salute you." The Raptors were never going to win the title, but they would not cower from defeat. And as the cheers rained down from the crowd, a season finished, the most successful in franchise history now finally, astoundingly over, the fans saluted right back.
"We were one of four teams left," said Casey. "We can be proud of that, but not satisfied."
Let's go Raptors. We the North. See you next year.