TORONTO – Confetti fell, fireworks erupted, a sell-out crowd chanted and serenaded their team as its players took turns raising the Eastern Conference championship trophy. That was just inside the building.
Outside, hundreds of thousands of fans celebrated. They stood on cars and trucks and streetcars. They packed the square adjacent to Scotiabank Arena, commonly known as Jurassic Park. They stood in the rain and waited in a line wrapped around the block three hours before the game even started just to secure a spot, to say they were there to witness history.
And they did.
For the first time in the 24-year existence of the franchise, the Toronto Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals.
It’s easy to forget that this team was built to come out of the East and to contend for a championship. That’s what president Masai Ujiri had in mind when he pulled off a massive, franchise-altering trade to acquire Kawhi Leonard over the summer. That was the primary motivation when he picked up Marc Gasol at the trade deadline.
They always believed they would be here, but you can forgive long-suffering Raptors fans for their skepticism. They’ve had their hearts broken time and time again.
Whether you were one of the lucky 20,478 in attendance or among the throng of people on the street, or if you were watching from home, you had at least some idea of what made this moment a special one. For those that have been around since day one, that have followed the team through two and a half decades of highs and lows – oh so many lows – it was more than a little surreal.
“It’s a hell of a story, man,” Fred VanVleet said after Toronto’s series-clinching 100-94 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. “It’s a hell of a story. Obviously, what this franchise has been through from its inceptions, what this city has been through in terms of its basketball growth, it’s a heck of a story to be going to the Finals and have a chance to win it all.”
“If you know the history of the team, you know this is a big moment,” said Pascal Siakam.
Losing seasons, missed opportunities, botched lottery picks, a parade of franchise players walking out the door, disappointing playoff exits and perceived slights from our friends south of the border – anything that could go wrong did go wrong.
So, naturally, when this Raptors team faced the weight of adversity that would have crushed them in the not so distant past, it was reasonable to feel like the end was near.
They dropped the first game of their opening-round series against the seventh-seeded Orlando Magic. They fell behind 2-1 in their second-round series with the Philadelphia 76ers and teetered on the brink of elimination in a tense back and forth Game 7. They lost the first two games of the East Finals to the NBA’s best team – only seven per cent of teams to go down 2-0 in a series have ever pulled off that comeback.
So, it seemed appropriate that Saturday’s Game 6 – the biggest and most important game in team history – would follow the same script.
The Raptors led for just 106 seconds of the first three quarters and trailed by as many as 15 points. A loss would have forced another do-or-die Game 7, this time in enemy territory, but they didn’t let it come to that. Instead, they outscored Milwaukee 39-18 over the final 14 minutes.
“It wasn't going that well,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “It seemed like a bit of a frustrating night. I think we got a little frustrated in the first half, but we kind of regrouped at halftime and talked about let's just keep playing, man. Nobody is giving us this thing; we've got to go take it ourselves. I thought we did a really good job of that in the second half. Just kept on playing.”
“[Nurse] told us that we were just here last game and to keep fighting, keep striving, one possession at a time,” said Leonard, who scored a game-high 27 points to go along with 17 rebounds and seven assists. “We all felt like we were still in the game. We had a little bit of momentum left. We just talked amongst each other once again, and just said, ‘Let's go out here and enjoy it’. We ended up doing that, and we ended up winning the game.”
They made big plays when it counted, got big stops, grabbed big rebounds and hit big shots. Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Siakam, Gasol, Serge Ibaka and VanVleet – collectively there was a will to win that the younger and less experienced Bucks simply didn’t have.
In many ways, their series-clinching win, the game that will live on in Raptors lore, epitomized what got them there to begin with. All year long they’ve dealt with adversity – roster and coaching turnover, injuries, load management, Leonard’s impending free agency – but it never broke them. And now, with so much on the line, they showed their character.
“One thing I’ve learned about these moments is about toughness,” said Ibaka, who made the Finals with Oklahoma City in his third NBA season, seven years ago. “I don’t care what talent you have, if you don’t have toughness you’re not going to be here. We’re here today and we won tonight’s game because we have toughness. We’ve got people that are tough. Kawhi’s got skill but he’s a tough guy. He’s hurt but he’s playing and he keeps pushing. You’ve got Kyle, he hurt his finger but he keeps going. Those moments, it’s something I’ve learned, when you get to this point it’s more about toughness than skill.”
One-by-one the Raptors took turns lifting the trophy, starting – fittingly – with Lowry, their longest-tenured player. Then, they made their way to the locker room for a brief and subdued celebration before the entire team went out to the square to thank the fans that showed up in record numbers to support them.
There aren’t many players left on this team that have been around long enough to feel the weight of the franchise’s chequered history, not like those in the crowd anyway, but they’re well aware of what this moment means to a city, a country and a fan base that have been yearning for it a long time.
“It’s amazing, man,” Siakam said. “It’s a beautiful city, a beautiful country, and they’ve definitely be waiting to be on that stage for a while. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
“We've got great fans,” Lowry said. “They support us through the good times and the bad times. Right now is a great time, and we're glad that they're our fans.”