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Who are these Raptors?

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The Toronto Raptors have a 3-1 series lead in the 2019 NBA Finals and look nothing like any Raptor team in history. What a time.

NBA: Finals-Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Call them recent fans, or bandwagon jumpers; call them whatever you want. The fact is there are now more fans of the Toronto Raptors than ever before. You can see them in the arena, in bars and streets around the city, even in public spaces across the country — in them the idea of “the North” is no longer just a marketing concept. It has found its “We.” The Raptors have a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals and look like no other team we’ve ever seen here before.

For many, they’ve never known anything else. There are only the facts of this run, this stretch to the 2019 NBA title, now suddenly just one game away. This is not to say they deserve to celebrate any less. Far from it. If anything, the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors embody this sentiment, this late-breaking in-the-moment action. All season there has been only this season and, by extension, the next game, the next play, the next opportunity to win. For a franchise historically prone to panic and collapse, this is a new power.

Naturally, it starts with Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors’ forward — who, yes, could be just a one-year rental — has set the tone for Toronto all season. To keep him healthy, Leonard was “load managed” throughout the year. It was a punchline, until Toronto achieved the two outcomes it had planned for all along: a team well-versed in using different, surprising lineup combinations, and a Kawhi ready and able to destroy any team put in his path. That both situations feed off of Leonard’s unknowable and confident persona makes for a neat symmetry. In this, Kawhi is like the Man With No Name — unflappable, unsolvable, unwilling to lose. (And also able to let loose with a dry one-liner when you least expect it.)

“I don’t play hero basketball. I’m not playing for fans,” said Kawhi immediately after his Game 4 masterpiece, and sounding for all the world like Clint Eastwood’s famous character, a man quietly hell-bent on getting his gold regardless of what it takes to get there. “I’m just playing to win.”

In that Game 4 against the Warriors, Leonard out-inevitabled (not a word, but you understand) a seemingly inevitable Golden State team. The Raptors were getting crushed in the first quarter, so Kawhi matched their scoring, more than doubling any other player’s point total on both teams. Then in the third, with the Raptors searching for their first lead down four and the Warriors faithful getting antsy, he shot the gun right out of Golden State’s hand. In that frame, Leonard almost outscored his opponents by himself, putting up 17 points to the Warriors’ 21 by way of his complete scoring package (massive 3s, trips to the line, steady jumpers), plus five boards and a steal. Again, that was just in 12 minutes.

“You just got to be patient with it,” said Leonard when asked if it was difficult to stay in the moment now that the Raptors are one win away. “We were two games away, four games away, it doesn’t matter until you get that fourth win. We just have to stay confident in ourselves, be patient, don’t try to rush things, and see how it plays out.”

We’ll heed Kawhi’s words here, but it bears mentioning that the odds are now in Toronto’s favour. Only one team out of 33 has come back from down 3-1 in the NBA Finals (and, as we all know, it was against these Warriors). And while Leonard refuses to put words to it, everyone in Toronto knows how big of a deal that is. Still, Kawhi sets the tone, and his teammates would be remiss in letting themselves, or anyone else, get ahead of things here. Look no further than the Raptors’ veterans to see how far that sentiment has travelled.

“I like to think that there are always more levels, that we can always get better,” said Marc Gasol, who rounded into form as the game wore on, and continues to follow bad performances with good ones. “And I think we have to. Game 5 is going to be — every game gets a little harder and harder. So Game 5 is going to be really tough. We’ve got to come out with a lot of energy, discipline.”

Kyle Lowry, the Raptors’ emotional leader, was even more succinct. “We didn’t do nothing yet. We haven’t done anything,” said Lowry. “We won three games. It’s the first of four. We understand that.” Having survived years of crushing defeats in Toronto, Lowry’s words carry a lot of weight. He’s speaking for himself, of course, a 12-year veteran who’s never been here before. But Lowry also knows his growing audience, he sees all the fans, notes all the old Raptors popping up in the arena and on the broadcasts, all these faces attending to a momentous occasion. It’s why he couldn’t avoid a question about DeMar DeRozan too. There’s just a lot of history there.

As for the Warriors, a different historical sentiment pervades the proceedings. They’ve been the league’s most known quantity over the past five seasons, as fearsomely consistent as any team in history. Everyone and their mother has heard something about Golden State and their legendary ability to own the entire narrative of the NBA. And yet despite that common knowledge, despite even their squad’s understanding of self, the Warriors have been unable to outpace or overpower the Raptors. Through four games, almost everything they’ve tried has been matched by Toronto, and the wear is really beginning to show. On Toronto’s run in Game 4, Draymond Green said it best: “Oh, this sucks. It sucks really bad.”

In this we recall a feeling from a very different Western film, one about memorable characters coming to their end. For the Warriors and their stunned fans, for the entire “We the North” generation and beyond, for all those bandwagon fans just now enjoying the ride, we reach again a perfect symmetry, and in one voice ask the same exact question.

Who are those guys?