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Ranking every 2019 Raptors playoff game: Part 4 - The Signature Wins

This is it. We arrive at the top three games from Toronto’s 2019 championship run. What follows are the contests that have come to define exactly how it felt to watch the Raptors claim the NBA’s top prize.

NBA: Finals-Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

The story of the Raptors’ 2019 title win is one of continuously raised expectations. Heading into the playoffs, Toronto did have a chance to win the title. They were one of the league’s best three or four teams, operating with a top five offense and defense, and stocked with veterans who’d played in some of the toughest situations imaginable. Still, you could forgive fans for not exactly believing it would happen. The Raptors, after all, do tend to Raptor.

And yet, here we are at the top of these 2019 playoff game rankings, three games still left to go. One of these contests is indeed the one in which the Raptors claimed their championship — but each represents its own pinnacle. Every time we thought the Raptors had gone as far, reached as high, strived as long as they possible could, they somehow kept finding another level. We’ll always remember where we were when we watched the Raptors scale each of these particular mountains. And we’ll always remember what it felt like to see them come down the other side as victors.

After running down the losses in Part 1, after remembering the easy wins of Part 2 and the tough wins of Part 3, we can officially rank the signature wins from Toronto’s 2019 title win.

Now, let’s remember the absolute best of times with the Raptors.

The Signature Wins

3. Game 6 vs. Milwaukee Bucks - Toronto wins 100-94

Summary: In truth, we were so jacked up after the Raptors’ wins in Game 3, 4, and 5 over Milwaukee, that the victory in Game 6 almost felt like a fait accompli. After surviving double overtime, and taking the series lead while on the road, it really did seem like the Raptors were going to the Finals — with no Game 7 to worry about. The Bucks had other ideas, of course, and took control of Game 6 almost from the outset.

In that, there is only one number we have to remember from that night: 15. That’s the size of the deficit the Raptors were facing after two free throws from Ersan Ilyasova with 2:18 to go in the third quarter. On any other night, it would have been insurmountable. The Bucks won 60 games in the regular season, were led by the league MVP, and had dominated throughout the post-season, including in their first two games against Toronto. The Bucks’ backs were against the wall, and the comfort (if we can use that word) of a Game 7 in Milwaukee was something for which they just had to fight. In other words, a comeback should have been a nigh impossible feat.

Nevertheless, a comeback was exactly what Toronto got. With ten straight points either scored or assisted on by Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors shrunk Milwaukee’s lead to five before the end of the frame. And in the fourth, with Kawhi on the bench, the good times just kept going on the way to a 26-3 Toronto run. Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell all scored in their own way before Kawhi returned to dunk Giannis into another dimension, thus ending the Bucks’ dreams of a trip to the Finals once and for all.

Why Here: This phrase applies to every game in the top three (or maybe the top ten?), but it really is impossible to overstate how exciting it was to watch the Raptors pull this win off. And much like the vibe we’d later get in the Finals, it really did feel like they would pull it off regardless of the bad situation they found themselves in during that third quarter. The timestamp on the above Kawhi dunk is 6:46. There were over six minutes to go in Game 6 of an elimination game against the Eastern Conference’s best team with the Raptors up 12 — a nice lead, but not impossible to erase — and we all knew there was just no way Milwaukee was going to recover. I wish I could have bottled that feeling of confidence right then and there.

Now, not to toot my own horn here, but I remember mumbling to no one in particular in the media gondola of the Scotiabank Arena: “If the Raps can just get it down to 5-6 points before the end of the third, they’ll win.” It was, perhaps, the optimism of a naive fool — and yet Toronto did just that, leading to said naive fool almost breaking his hand slapping the absolute hell out of the wall behind him as Kawhi dunked Giannis into another galaxy and Raptors fans exploded like they’ve never exploded before. I’ll never forget it. Ever.

2. Game 6 vs. Golden State Warriors - Toronto wins 114-110

Summary: Whoa! The actual title-winning game at number two? Let’s recap. The Raptors headed into Game 6 up 3-2 on the Warriors, with every reason in the world to believe they’d win. (If not for the bad karma of Game 5, we likely wouldn’t even have been here, but I digress.) The Raps had won their last two games in the series on the road. Kevin Durant was for sure not coming back. And Golden State was limping — they played Game 6 with DeMarcus Cousins (on one leg), Kevon Looney (broken by Kawhi), and Klay Thompson (scary for three quarters before tearing his ACL). Never underestimate the heart of a champion and all that, but the Raptors were the favourites by that point.

It was Kyle Lowry who set the tone early for Toronto, scoring 15 points in the first quarter to keep the Warriors on their heels. We’d seen bursts like that before from Lowry (the Game 1 loss vs. Milwaukee), but this time the other core members of the team — namely Kawhi, Ibaka, VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam — got into it to keep pace with Golden State. Kawhi chipped in 22, Ibaka hustled for 15 massive points, VanVleet exploded for 22 (with 12 in the fourth) while keeping Steph Curry at bay, and Siakam led the way (tied with Lowry) by scoring 26 points to seal it. And just to bring it full circle in the series after his electric Game 1, it was Pascal who scored the finishing bucket, a beauty change-of-speed floater over Draymond Green. After that: a few tense free throws, the final buzzer, and a celebration across Toronto — and, really, the entire country of Canada.

Why Here: I realize I’m making Game 6 sound anticlimactic. It wasn’t, I assure you. True to their name, the Warriors refused to give up the fight, and actually held modest leads (three to five points) for much of the third and fourth quarters. Meanwhile, it is almost too terrifying to consider what would have happened if Thompson hadn’t gotten hurt. To that point he had 30 points on 8-of-12 shooting, and was moving into that rare zone where it looks like every single shot of his is going down. Franchises have been destroyed before because of Klay’s hot streaks.

Still, as has been said before, you play the team in front of you, and by that point the Warriors were hobbled and the Raptors weren’t. If there is one striking image to take away from Game 6 — and there are many — the core unit of Toronto coming together to win may be the most memorable. If you look at the fourth quarter box score you’ll see what I mean. After saving the Raptors time and time again in the playoffs, Kawhi had just three points (on free throws) in the fourth. Leonard’s mere presence still moves mountains, of course, but if it’s possible to tire him out, this was about as worn down as we’d ever seen him. He needed the other Raptors to step up in a big way, and, wow, look at that... they did. The Raptors are still the 2019 NBA champions. What else is there to say?

1. Game 7 vs. Philadelphia 76ers - Toronto wins 92-90

Summary: Well, OK, there is one more thing to say. There were a lot of games left to play after Game 7 against Philly — 12, in fact — but this was the one that broke reality. The following tweet semi-summarizes what I mean:

To say Raptors-Sixers Game 7 was a tense affair is to misuse the word “tense.” The experience of watching it was like putting your eyes through a washing machine spin cycle while your stomach tumbled along in the dryer. There was no relief for almost two and a half hours as both teams tried and failed to assert their dominance over the other. The score after one quarter? 18-13. The score after two? 44-40. I point this out only to demonstrate how ugly the game was — a low-scoring affair through-and-through — and how close it felt right to the end. At one point in the third quarter the Raptors took a nine-point lead — an heretofore unheard of tally — and then got stone-walled for almost five minutes as the Sixers flipped it into a seven-point advantage for themselves. There’s pain, there’s agony, and then there’s watching that happen in real time.

We remember the good times of Game 7 though. Kawhi shooting and shooting and shooting again on his way to 41 points on an unheard of (for him) 39 shots. By that point, every moment with the ball in Leonard’s hands was a soothing mental balm. We can recall the sequence when Serge Ibaka caught a flying elbow from Ben Simmons, hit the deck, got up, marched to the other end of the floor, caught the pass from Siakam, faked a three — and then took it on the move to put the Raps up five in a tight spot. Or how about the time when Kyle Lowry had to defend Joel Embiid in the post with less than 15 seconds left, managing to poke the ball away, if only for a moment. All of these things really happened (even Jimmy Butler’s death drive for the tie). But the details will almost surely be lost to time.

Why Here: And that’s because of Game 7’s final 4.2 seconds. Yes, it’s during that comically short timeframe in which we find the endless multitudes contained by The Shot.

In Ted Chiang’s most recent short story collection Exhalation, the final story “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” presents us with a world that contains a device allowing users to interact with mirror versions of themselves in different timelines. The particulars of the technology don’t matter, but the effect is profound. What if you could see where you’d end up if you opted to take that job instead of decline it, or dump that partner instead of stay with them, or if you took a certain trip abroad or not? In short, what if you could review a lifetime of zigs rather than zags? Assuming each one of your life choices could lead to a different future outcome opens the gateway to a limitless number of yous, each in a situation based on what has occurred in that specific timeline.

In 2001, the Raptors had a chance to beat the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. That series came down to a seventh game and a last second shot too. The Raptors were down by one though, and when Vince Carter missed his three at the buzzer, that was it. Toronto lost, and the Raptors wouldn’t get close again for another 15 years, the franchise dealt a killing blow for an entire generation. For all of that time, Raptors fans have wondered what it would have been like if that shot had gone in. What would have been different with the Raptors? With Toronto? With our own lives?

When Kawhi curled to his preferred spot along the right baseline, we knew the Raptors had a chance to win. We also knew these sorts of moments didn’t tend to go Toronto’s way. We’ve seen this city’s sports teams — hell, this city — come up short again and again in the big moment. As Kawhi’s shot, The Shot, travelled towards the hoop, and then bounced all those times on the rim, there was enough time to see all those future outcomes play out in our mind’s eye. The one where the shot misses, sending the game to overtime; the one where the Raptors lose, the Kawhi era ending with no golden trophy at the end; the one where he doesn’t even get a shot off, the chance to win taken before it even gets off the ground. We knew all of that was possible too.

Which is why Toronto’s Game 7 vs. the Sixers will always be the best, most important game of those 2019 playoffs. In the moment when it all could have gone wrong, it instead went oh so perfectly right for the Raptors, bouncing away all those empty futures in one succinct yet elongated moment.

And you know what else? The Shot, and Game 7, cleared away the bad memories of the past too. In Toronto, it’s over and done with now. The shot went in, the Raptors won — and the rest is ancient history.