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It has been some kind of year. Let us revisit some moments along the way
An interesting thing, when looking back over all the thousands of words one has written about the Toronto Raptors this season, was how casually it was assumed that the ceiling for that team was a berth in the NBA Finals. Every time the its potential was mentioned, it was something along the lines of, “maybe they could even make it out of the East.” I wrote at one point that making it to the East was “otherwise known as the right to get pantsed by the Golden State Warriors in the Finals.”
But before anyone wants to shove that in my face, please note that this view was often accepted by even those on the team. Here was Fred VanVleet, after a late-season game on the road in Charlotte, when I asked about the Raptors flying under the league’s radar: “We’ll get enough accolades and praise and pats on the back if we do what we’re supposed to do and make it all the way to the Finals.”
Winning the championship was just too wild to contemplate. And yet, here we are. It has been some kind of year. Let us revisit some moments along the way.
A fun guy
Kawhi Leonard’s introductory press conference will always be remembered for the awkward laugh and the amazingly incongruous declaration that he was fun, but lost to history was his answer about what he planned to do this summer. “If you look to the future, you’ll trip on the present,” he said. It remains the most insightful thing he said all year. I continue to think he had written it on one of his giant hands.
‘I think that’s old’
When Leonard was asked on that September afternoon about his future in Toronto, at one point team president Masai Ujiri stepped in and took aim at the idea that the city wasn’t a desirable place to play. “The narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone,” he said. “Believe in this city. Believe in yourself.” I mean, pretty prophetic.
Well, sort of. After roaring out to a 12-1 start, the Raptors lost two straight in mid-November and then headed to Boston, where the Celtics at the time seemed like the most likely contender for the East crown. Toronto dominated, but collapsed late, with Leonard missing a potential game-winner at the buzzer before Kyrie Irving took over in overtime. It all looked a little grim at that moment. The Raptors never did lose three straight again.
The Raptors snapped a long losing streak against the Golden State Warriors in late November with an overtime win. In the department of foreshadowing, Pascal Siakam, who scored the last basket in the Finals-clinching Game 6 six months later, scored seven of Toronto’s 12 overtime points. Leonard had none of them. Ah, the days when he was once not unstoppable.
Less than two weeks after beating the Warriors at home, the Raptors drilled them at Oracle Arena in a game in which Leonard was busy managing his load. Toronto was up 16 at the half, and though no one was thinking about it at the time, it was the first of four wins at Oakland for the Raptors this season. The odds of that eventually happening, I am conservatively estimating, were one zillion to one.
The Raptors went to San Antonio in early January, Kawhi Leonard was mercilessly booed, and the Spurs ran them off the floor with a 38-19 first quarter on the way to a blowout win. Leonard scored just 21 points, and Danny Green missed all seven of his shot attempts in his return to his former team. Kyle Lowry said a few times in the playoffs that coach Nick Nurse had only yelled at his team a coupe of times all season. I bet this was one of those times.
Jonas Valanciunas was set to come back from a long injury layoff in early February at Atlanta, and he talked that morning about how excited he was to be back. His teammates all said the same thing. It was a nice moment. Hours later, he was dealt to Memphis, with Delon Wright and C.J. Miles, for Marc Gasol. Tough business, sometimes. He returned to Toronto for their playoff opener against Orlando, which the Raptors lost. It was like he never left.
Trouble with pronouns
Gasol’s first game came a couple of nights later in New York. He didn’t play much, but expressed mild shock at the number of Raptors fans who made noise at Madison Square Garden. He said Memphis used to get the odd travelling fan. “But not as much as you guys,” Gasol said. He paused a beat. “Well, us, now.”
Yet another harbinger
By mid-February, the Raptors seemed destined to finish in the two-spot in the East, and they hadn’t played a game that felt particularly meaningful in ages. The Celtics came to town, and against a key rival, the Raptors stomped them by 28 points. Leonard had 21 points and sat for the whole fourth quarter, and Nurse said afterward that he had done that superstar thing when they take over the game. “He was just going to take it where he wanted to take it tonight, and there wasn’t anybody going to do anything about it.”
Talking about practice
Leonard said in early March that the regular season, all 82 games of it, was to him “just practice.” Nurse would say a couple months later, after Leonard had given another virtuoso playoff performance, that the “practice” comment was when he realized that Leonard, as good as he had been all season, was going to be something to watch in the post-season.
As the regular season wound down, and Gasol had worked his way into the starting lineup, Toronto’s first five-man unit had become one of the most effective in the league, with the Spaniard’s passing opening up the Raptors’ offence in previously unseen ways. Asked if he had become comfortable in the new role, he responded: “Yes. I know everybody’s name now.”
After their customary playoff-opening loss, Nurse admitted that he probably should have played Leonard more, but he was used to his regular-season rotations. In Game 2, the offence became more Kawhi-centric, and he went for 37 points on just 22 shots. Other than being a sign of things to come, it was simply the kind of efficient high-scoring game that DeMar DeRozan had never been able to manage for the Raptors.
With the Raptors trailing 2-1 in the second round to the Sixers, and clinging to a one-point lead in Game 4 in Philadelphia, Leonard took the ball with less than two minutes left and hunted for a shot. Cut off on drive attempts, he dribbled around, and launched a fading three-pointer over the outstretched arm of Joel Embiid. Bucket. “I just took a shot and believed it would go in,” Leonard said. “And it did.” He remains a work in progress with the storytelling.
There is not much left to be said about The Shot that won Toronto’s only Game 7 this year, but no recap is complete without it. Let us just note that before the game that would end with Leonard’s agonizingly slow four-bounce dagger, Sixers coach Brett Brown had said, of a do-or-die Game 7: “There’s always a point in these games that is a defining moment.” Man, was he ever correct.
On the brink
As much as the Raptors’ fortunes, and eventual championship, hung on the rim for all those seconds against Philly, they were never more on the brink than in overtime against Milwaukee in Game 3. Already down 0-2, and with Lowry having fouled out, and with the Raptors having gone without a basket for the first 90 seconds of OT, I will always remember that Nurse called a play for Danny Green, who was 0-for-8 at that point. The entire arena was thinking “NOOOOOOO” when it was Green who was shooting, but then the three-pointer went in, and it seemed like maybe the Raptors weren’t doomed after all.
People have asked me a few times in recent days what I will remember most about Game 6 against the Warriors. And, funny thing, it was without one of those defining moments. The final minute was mostly a train wreck: Draymond Green had an awful turnover, and then Danny Green threw the ball away; tough stretch of ball-handling for people named D. Green. And then Steph Curry, the best three-point shooter in history, missed a three-pointer. But I will remember Lowry’s remarkable first quarter, and VanVleet’s three fourth-quarter bombs, and Lowry and Pascal Siakam each hitting awkward floaters down the stretch. There is no arguing that Leonard was absolutely the key guy who transformed what the Toronto Raptors could be. But they entered the fourth quarter trailing to a historically good team, on the road, and he didn’t make a field goal the rest of the way. And the Raptors won the dang NBA title anyway. Lowry had said back in training camp that the championship was the goal. It might have been only the guys in that locker room who believed it.
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