Not to start this piece of with an “I” statement, but I’m still thinking about my outburst during the Raptors’ Game 5 disaster against the Celtics. In that moment, watching Toronto get embarrassed on their way to a 22-point loss, I totally lost the necessary perspective. I get all that, but what I — and many others — were trying to articulate was not merely an anger at the idea of the Raptors’ losing. It was a broader frustration and disappointment with the team that went beyond the binary of the W or the L.
Heading into these playoffs, the emotional tenor of Raptors fans was consistent. There was a chance the team could go to the Finals and defend their 2019 title, but minus the top-line talent they’d had that year, it would be tough. We all knew that. In many cases, the best most of us dared hope for was a hard fought defeat. If the Raptors couldn’t win it all, we hoped they’d at least make it as difficult as possible for some other team to do it — be it in the second, third, or final round. In that context, the team’s Game 1 and 5 letdowns against the Boston Celtics take on a different tone. The losing stings, but the how of each loss is the truly painful part.
If you notice now, few are talking about the Raptors’ Game 2 loss in this series against Boston. In fact, I can barely remember the sequence of events which produced that outcome. There was a fluky hot streak from Marcus Smart, some tough defense to overcome from Boston, and then the final buzzer sounded with the Raptors on the wrong end of the score. What I do remember is that the Raptors put themselves into position to win, laboured hard to bring that outcome about, and just... didn’t quite get there. It sucks, but it’s also what happens in basketball and, sure, in life.
This is why Games 3, 4 and especially 6 against Boston will inevitably be added to Toronto playoff lore. Each has their own compelling story — the miracle OG Anunoby game-winner, the clutch shot-making of Kyle Lowry, the astounding fight into double-OT and the emergence of Norman Powell. If the Raptors do indeed lose tomorrow night in Game 7, we’ll still be able to point to those games, those moments, as proof that they could have won, that they had what it took to go all the way once again. Even if they lose, we can believe that. But forgive the past tense use there — I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind instead.
When we look back at the Raptors’ past playoff failures — you can go ahead and pick your favourite — the dominant sentiment was one of embarrassment. Regardless of the roster or the coach, the Raptors almost always looked unprepared for the moment, even when they were the “better” team. For fans who spent their days getting hyped up, it was never not crushing to see just how quickly Toronto could fold under that pressure. We can recall how quickly LeBron James took the Raptors apart from 2016 to 2018; or go back further to those Chris Bosh-led fiascos; or even remember the unravelling of 2000, in which it was clear the Raptors were just not ready. The whole “Game 1 loss at home” thing sprung specifically from these moments too. For a league and audience always seemingly a heartbeat away from relegating Toronto to afterthought, it hurt to watch.
That’s what stands out now after Wednesday night’s Game 6. The Raptors were in tough against a team that has, let’s admit it, a few gamers, players who can — and have — seized the moment. It’s even possible to argue the Raptors have no real business to still be in this series at all. Exhausted after regulation, to say nothing of the minutes load from previous games, the Raptors should have folded now. Prior to Game 6, they were facing elimination against a younger team that believes their time has come. And with the eyes of the NBA world upon them, historically the Raptors have tended to fail — and fail hard — more often than they’ve succeeded. Which makes what happened down the stretch and in those overtime periods, with Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and the rest of the Raptors making play after play after play to keep their season alive, so satisfying.
Make no mistake: if the Raps had lost Game 6, it would have been a bummer. But Toronto would have been able to hold their collective heads up high. They fought hard all the way to the final buzzer, gave it all they got, left it all on the floor — choose whatever sports cliche you want here. There would have been nothing else left to takeaway. Except, well, they didn’t lose. And now, after the most fun season in Raptors’ history, after the suspended regular season and the almost-work stoppage, after all of those ups and downs right on into the Bubble, Toronto still has a chance to go all the way.
Whatever happens in Game 7 — me personally, I’m praying for a Toronto-led blowout — Raptors fans just want the team to show up like we know they can. Like the world now knows they can. And most importantly: like they know they can.