The NBA Finals are coming north! The even-keeled Raptors didn’t let a big deficit get them down, and fought their way back against a Bucks team that wasn’t quite ready for the moment... and the city of Toronto exploded, sending the Raptors to a showdown with the Warriors with the loudest crowd, and longest post-game celebration, basketball has ever seen in this country.
It was a sensational game and an amazing moment for the team, for the fans and for the city. My thoughts:
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
The way the skies opened up about three hours before game time, you’d be forgiven if you thought the rain would dampen some of the the enthusiasm the city had for this game; I mean, it was coming down out there.
But it didn’t, not one bit; the excitement was everywhere. You could feel it, a palpable buzz in the air, that I’ve never felt for basketball in this city.
For me, I wondered if the rain didn’t portend something else — a furious downpour to wash away all of those past playoff failures, to flush the sweeps and the missed opportunities and heartbreak and the struggles away, to wipe the slate clean before the most important game in Raptors history.
It certainly didn’t dampen anything inside the arena; it was louder than ever in there, and barely a butt touched a seat the entire fourth quarter.
By the time it was over, the rain was long gone, and it was a beautiful night, perfect for parading up Yonge or Bay Street with a few thousand of your closest friends.
Saturday Night Fever
At one point last night, Raptors game ops played their Saturday Night Fever clip, where the Raptor gets himself pampered and prepped for a Saturday night of dancing a la John Travolta. The clip includes Travolta, and later the Raptor, strutting down the street to the sounds of the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive,” and I gotta say, that’s how I felt walking into the arena last night — just brimming with confidence, feeling like nothing could get me down, like the world was at my feet. I wasn’t nervous at all.
Which in itself was scary. I felt uncomfortable in my confidence! And certainly, when the Bucks extended their third-quarter lead from five to 15, I felt all of that confidence draining out of me, like the air seeping out of a popped balloon.
But the Raptors have their own strut. It might be more of a quiet confidence, they don’t talk a big game; they just go out and do it on the floor. And during that fourth quarter, every player on the Bucks looked like a limp balloon.
By the time the game was over, you better believe I was strutting up Bay Street with the rest of the faithful, shoulders square, chest out, my team not just “Staying Alive” but moving on to the NBA freakin’ Finals.
The Kawhi Imprint
That’s two games in a row now that the Raptors found themselves down by double digits, and yet the final score was in their favour. In Game 5, it was an early first quarter 18-4 deficit; last night, it was a 76-61 hole with 2:18 left in the third quarter.
Just ratcheting up the degree of difficulty, right?
By now, you know what happened next: A 26-3 run from Toronto. It started with a Kawhi-Leonard-fueled 10-0 run (eight points, plus an assist on a Serge Ibaka baby hook) to close the third quarter, and then with Leonard on the bench, everyone else stepped up to the plate in the early fourth quarter. Fred VanVleet had a driving layup. Norman Powell had a three. Ibaka had a dunk, Pascal Siakam hit a runner and VanVleet nailed a deep three, and all of a sudden the Raptors were up five, and never looked back.
I have to believe that this is the impact of Kawhi Leonard. I mean, obviously, all the stuff you see on the floor — the scoring, the big-time dunks, the defies-description defense, those soft shots touching all parts of the rim before going down — that’s “impact” in the most quantifiable way. But the personality, the way nothing gets to him, the way he approaches each game and each play, has permeated this team.
Down 15 points with less than 15 minutes to play? They could have easily folded up right there. A lot of teams — including a lot of past Raptors teams — would have. This team is different, and if you need evidence, you need look no further than these last four games.
I’m so Happy for Kyle Lowry
What a game, what a series, what a postseason for Kyle Lowry. For everything Lowry went through this season, for everything he’s gone through as a Raptor, for his whole up-and-down career, to see him finally make it to this big stage, to hold up that Eastern Conference Championship trophy while being serenaded with “LOWRY! LOWRY!” chants. I mean, that’s the moment that choked me up the most last night. Lowry deserves this so much. He’s the last man standing from the pre-Masai Ujiri days, the only Raptor left from the Brooklyn series that opened this playoff run, and we know about his up-and-down relationships with Dwane Casey and Masai Ujiri, but you never, ever doubted Lowry’s effort, or his desire to win, or to make the right basketball play, and to finally see it rewarded... dammit, I’m choking up again just writing about it.
Happy Kyle >>>>>>>>>>>>>pic.twitter.com/YbmjVfm18n— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) May 26, 2019
I don’t know if you remember, I mean it’s not like anyone really made a big deal about it, but this man scored zero points in the opening game of the playoffs. And perhaps you have also heard about his “spotty” postseason resume, or that he “doesn’t show up” when the games matter.
So allow me dispel this once and for all; in the past four games, in the Eastern Conference Finals, four straight wins against the team with the best record in the NBA, Lowry averaged 17.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists (against 1.4 turnovers), 0.8 steals, shot 51% from the floor, 44% from downtown, and 95% from the free throw line.
Toss those “Lowry poor playoff performer” takes into Lake Ontario, thank you very much.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Thinking back to that Brooklyn series, I can’t help but think of a few of the guys that helped us get from there to here. Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan, obviously. Terrence Ross, who stole the ball from Paul Pierce in Game 7 against Brooklyn, which was a moment I worried would never be surpassed (it’s been surpassed like five times in the past two weeks). Greivis Vasquez, who was traded to Milwaukee for Norman Powell (who was unbelievably huge intros series) and the pick that would become OG Anunoby. Bismack Biyombo, who was in the house last night and almost singlehandedly turned the series around the last time Toronto was in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Chuck Hayes and Amir Johnson. John Salmons! Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll. Psycho T! Bruno and Bebe. Bloodsport. Cory Joseph (from the 6ix!) and Luis Scola. Jakob Poeltl. Delon Wright and C.J. Miles. Jonas Valanciunas.
All of those guys helped this team get to where it is today, and goddammit why am I crying again. I love all you guys, and you’re not forgotten.
The Raptors are going to the NBA Finals. It doesn’t matter how many times I write it, it still doesn’t feel real. But it is! It’s really happening. These guys did it. They were the underdogs in this series (and they will be against Golden State), and they beat Milwaukee — who hadn’t lost more than two straight all year (and lost two straight only once) — four straight games.
They did it. With defense. With resiliency. By doing all the things we wanted from the Raptors over the years, but could never quite get.
They really did it.