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Ranking every 2019 Raptors playoff game: Part 3 - The Tough Wins

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Our countdown continues today with a look back over a batch of Toronto’s most difficult wins from their 2019 playoff run. These are the ones that meant a lot and really set the stage for the Raptors’ title win.

NBA: Finals-Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, Sportsnet aired Game 7 of the Raptors’ Eastern Conference Semi-Finals series against the Philadelphia 76ers — also known as the one with The Shot. That particular game is not in today’s set of rankings (you’ll have to wait for Friday), but now we have to admit: going forward in these rankings, we will be inviting some extreme stress into our lives.

Every team on its way to a championship experiences some adversity, even seemingly invincible squads — like, say, the Warriors of 2017 and 2018 — that are title bound from the jump. It was a given we’d be here considering the Raptors’ playoff games from 2019. They definitely got their collective ass into a jackpot or two during last year’s playoff run, and we had to endure the effort it took to get them out. All told, it was a lot.

That’s not to say there weren’t some enjoyable times to be had, though. This next batch of games, after the Part 1 losses from Friday and Monday’s Part 2 of easy wins, speaks to the stress of the moment and the level of play required to meet that challenge. The Raptors were, for the most part, in uncharted territory with these wins. They were proving to themselves, the city, and the world, that they could in fact win the championship. It was stressful for Toronto — but it absolutely had to be done.

With that, let’s get right to it. Here is the ranking of the Raptors’ tough wins from their 2019 championship climb.

The High Stakes Wins

9. Game 1 vs. Golden State Warriors - Toronto wins 118-109

Summary: For the first time in history, the NBA Finals began in not-America. Owing to their better regular season record, the Raptors got to open their bid for a championship — against the winner of three of the last four titles, the Warriors — in Toronto. And while this would normally mean a calvacade of Game 1 jokes, the Raptors instead came out and handled business, relinquishing the lead only a few times in the first half before easing their way to victory.

That the Raps were able to come together and do that in, again, Game 1 of the NBA Finals was amazing at the time — and continues to be amazing, even now. In one sense, this was a team that was not technically supposed to be there. And yet in another, they looked and played like they totally belonged. Speaking of which, it’s worth noting that Pascal Siakam, in the first Finals game of his career, went all the way off, roasting defensive genius Draymond Green for 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting. Not bad!

Why Here: Yes, we’re ranking a Finals game below some other contests from the second and third rounds. But now hold on, there are a couple of things to consider here. One, this Game 1 was of a slightly less stressful variety; the Raptors were in the Finals and it really was, at least in part, just a wonderful place to be in that moment. For two, this was at home in Toronto, which lowers the degree of difficulty to just below some of the other games in this section. Third, as noted, the Raptors kind of won this game handily — which was just a remarkable achievement all around. Toronto was riding a new high.

8. Game 3 vs. Golden State Warriors - Toronto wins 123-109

Summary: This game was the first moment when the sentiment in Toronto flipped from “happy to be here” to “why can’t we win the whole thing?” The Raptors took control of Game 3 early, allowing the Warriors to grab a mere one-point lead in the first two minutes before dominating the rest of the way. Again, this was on the road in Oakland, the arena that had seen the Warriors demolish the entire league over the past five years.

Leading the way with his play and no-nonsense demeanour, Kawhi Leonard dropped 30 points (and added seven rebounds and six assists), while every other starter — plus Fred VanVleet — scored in double figures. Meanwhile as a team, Toronto shot 52 percent from the field and 45 from three. Those are the kinds of numbers needed to beat the Warriors, even without Klay Thompson (hurt for one night) and Kevin Durant on the floor. The Raptors really were indeed ready to win it all.

Why Here: Game 3 holds a special place in these rankings because while it almost technically qualifies as a near-blowout type win, it never quite felt comfortable. Not with Steph Curry, only the deadliest offensive weapon of his generation, shooting 14-for-31 (and 6-of-14 from three) for 47 points. If Curry’s scoring bonanza had worked — despite even Toronto’s box-and-one gambit — Game 3 would have been all about how the Warriors just need Steph to catch fire to beat any team at any time. Instead, the Raptors snuffed out those flames and won with relative ease.

7. Game 5 vs. Milwaukee Bucks - Toronto wins 105-99

Summary: The Raptors had managed to tie the series up with the Bucks at two games apiece but now had to travel to Milwaukee to take control. It’s fair to say the Raptors were not favoured in that situation. After all, how often does a team come back from down 0-2 to win Game 5 while on the road? Only 20 teams across 282 seven-game playoff series had done it to that point. So, yeah, not often.

But the answer to that question is actually another just as unlikely question: How often does a player like Fred VanVleet, thought completely ineffective through two-and-a-half playoff rounds, suddenly turn it on and decide to light it up the rest of the way? The answer is once, and just at the exact right time. The end result: we can credibly call Game 5 the Fred VanVleet Game. Yes, he got things started for himself in Toronto’s easy Game 4 win, but with 21 points in a tight road contest, VanVleet cemented himself as the clutch peformer we always knew he was — and could be. The rest of the playoffs were still largely about the heroics of Kawhi, but it cannot be said Fred did not have his moment (and then some).

Why Here: If you check the box score in Game 5, it presents a perfect snapshot of where both the Raptors and Bucks were by this time. Toronto was showing a solid seven players — with Danny Green fading into oblivion — while Milwaukee was looking at six plus a rotating cast hanging on by their fingernails. (Nikola Mirotic’s career was quite literally never the same after this series.) It was, ironically, Green who let slip the truth later: the Raptors knew they could run with and defend the Bucks, and knew they could beat them — they just had to do it. Winning Game 5 let everyone know it was very likely going to happen for Toronto.

The Even Higher Stakes Wins

6. Game 4 vs. Golden State Warriors - Toronto wins 105-92

Summary: It still feels surreal to acknowledge that the Raptors won this game. Yes, the Warriors were the walking wounded, starting the obviously hampered DeMarcus Cousins, and working with a thin bunch. But the superhuman Klay Thompson was back, and what’s more: come on, it’s the freakin’ Warriors at home in the NBA Finals. They were made for a moment like that.

True to the narrative, Golden State came out and controlled most of the first half, leading for almost the entire 24 minutes. Behind a combined 22 first half points from Thompson and Steph, the Warriors grew their lead to as large as 11. Now, I’m not saying I gave up in that moment. I’m not saying that. Toronto was down only four at the half, and it’s not like Kawhi and Lowry, just to name two Raptors, were wilting under the pressure. (They were in fact matching Steph and Klay every step of the way.) But it was easy to see how the Warriors would do their Warrior thing, and we’d all head back to Toronto with the series tied at 2-2. Disappointing, sure, but there’s no shame in that.

But then the second half started and... the Raptors just beat the Warriors. That’s the only way to describe it. Led by a truly insane 17 points in the third from Kawhi, Toronto took a 13 point lead. And then, they grew it to 16 in the fourth on their way to victory. I’m practically vibrating as a type these words. What a turn of events.

Why Here: It wasn’t as close as Game 5 vs. Milwaukee, but winning Game 4 in Oakland in such a thorough fashion put the Raptors at their highest point to date ever as a franchise. (Then they won the actual title and had a parade, the two subsequent higher points.) In that moment, they were one win away from a title, up 3-1 on the most dominant team of the decade. What’s more, they weren’t just surviving against Golden State, they were downright thriving. And the best part? Kawhi Leonard, having issued his “fuck that, let’s go get ’em both” mandate, actually went out and did the damn thing. Has that ever happened in Toronto sports history?

5. Game 3 vs. Milwaukee Bucks - Toronto wins 118-112 (2OT)

Summary: Game 3 was an absolute war of attrition. As a must-win for the Raptors, they played from in front for most of the game, but still couldn’t put the Bucks away. Somewhere along the way it became clear Kawhi was playing on one leg. Then, with six minutes to go in the fourth, Lowry fouled out which meant VanVleet, to this point playing terribly, had to step in. A minute later, Marc Gasol picked up his fifth foul, putting him on eggshells the rest of the game. Oh, and then we went to overtime — followed by a second overtime. Everything was going haywire, up to and including the fact that Milwaukee somehow managed to take a lead in that second OT. Just rude stuff.

But even on one leg, Kawhi would not be denied. Game 3 marked the occassion for Raptors coach Nick Nurse to (finally) put Kawhi on Giannis full-time, changing the entire complexion of the series. The Greek Freak couldn’t quite solve him, and the Raptors slowly rediscovered themselves. Also, Kawhi was still able to do immortal things like this. Who needs two legs anyway?

Why Here: The Raptors were up against it in Game 3 against the Bucks. They’d choked away Game 1, wasting an all-time performance from Lowry. Then they’d gotten demolished in Game 2, which looked to have sent Gasol into early retirement. But if you ever find yourself looking for an athletic definition of “turning point,” I’d like to recommend Game 3 as a good one with which to work. The Raptors poured in all they had to top what had looked to that point like an unstoppable foe in an uphill battle. After that, it all started rolling downhill for Toronto — and it never really stopped.

4. Game 4 vs. Philadelphia 76ers - Toronto wins 101-96

Summary: As with about half the games in this series, Game 4 was ugly. Both teams shot relatively poorly. The lead changed ten times, with the teams finding themselves tied another 11 times. Neither squad could take control. The Raptors and Sixers were both just hauling back and trying haymaker after haymaker, and getting nowhere. While many games qualify, this was also one where it could very fairly be said that the Raptors would have had no chance to win if not for Kawhi Leonard. Toronto’s star had 39 points on 13-of-20 shooting, along with 14 rebounds and five assists, an astounding line given the extreme circumstances. When combined with Gasol’s near-mythic defense on Joel Embiid, it was enough to put the Raptors up one with just over a minute to go.

So then, we arrive at Game 4’s highlight, the only shot worth remembering, the first of Kawhi’s super-clutch moments for Toronto in the post-season. It was his brazen three over the outstretched fingers of the largest man in the league — with the shotclock about to expire! — that sealed it. This was also the moment that gave Toronto just enough life to keep playing on. And so they did.

Why Here: I distinctly remember getting the news the day before Game 4 that Pascal Siakam, the young linchpin of the series for Toronto, was a game-time decision to play. This was right before a radio spot on the FAN590, so I then had to pop on the air to talk coherently about the Raptors’ chances of winning. This on the road against a scary opponent. This after the Sixers had just annihilated the Raptors in Game 3. This after every bad thing that had ever happened in Toronto sports. It was an extremely tough time — and an even harder game to actually watch.

By the way, in case you forgot, Siakam did end up playing in Game 4, putting in nine points on 2-of-10 shooting in 28 clearly hampered minutes. It wasn’t the ordeal it could have been. But it also didn’t matter — the Raptors won. My God, they won.

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And now, we exhale. We just made it through remembering six of the biggest games in Raptors history, some of the toughest fights the team has ever been in, with the stakes almost as high as they could ever possibly go.

Which means there are just three left to go. Join us Friday as we rank the final three games from Toronto’s 2019 playoff run. It promises to be... an emotional experience.