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The featured image on this article, which now doubles as my masochistic Twitter avatar, is perfect. If a picture is worth a thousand words, that one is also worth a thousand feels. It brings on a wave of emotion – the heart break, the closeness of it all, and just how much I (we) loved this team.

This article is not analysis. You’ve probably read plenty of end-of-season pieces already, and I didn’t have the heart to dive into the X’s and O’s of the Game 7 loss for an article, though I did subject myself to a second viewing of Game 7 this morning, which has to be the worst way anyone has ever voluntarily started off their birthday. I had no idea what to write about, and I really still don’t. I have a lot of thoughts, and they don’t connect in any appreciable way to form any narrative arc. So, I guess, apologies for what will surely be rambling, but here’s hoping it’s cathartic, if not for you then for me.

I loved this year’s Toronto Raptors team.

Obviously, to commit this much compensation-free time to a Raptors blog, we all do. I’ve been writing about the team since 2007 and regularly since roughly the summer of 2008, on-and-off for the most part but steady for three years or so. This is, without question, my favourite instalment of the Raptors in that time. The 2000-01 team got me into basketball, the 2001-02 team’s improbable playoff push hooked me, and the 2006-07 Atlantic Division Championship team (#bannerz) led me to begin writing. As with most, I’m sure, I have fond memories of the Vince Carter years and, to a lesser degree, the “Garbajosa Era” (I assume I’m not alone in viewing Garbo, not Chris Bosh, as the avatar for that season, right?). Those teams, while exciting and memorable, don’t hold a candle. At least not right now. Recency bias? Sure, probably. But this team was just so damn likable.

More from RR:

Kyle Lowry has been my dude since Day One; I believed in Greivis Vasquez when he said the best was still to come; watching DeMar DeRozan’s growth over the last five years has been a fun, though oft-frustrating, ride; oscillating on how I feel about Terrence Ross and his potential has been, umm, interesting; I’ve come a long way in terms of respect for Dwane Casey, too. And yes, I did happen to go through my RR archives today to kind of re-live the season again (and damn if I hardly ever write about Jonas Valanciunas, oddly enough). I even like John Salmons’ chain-and-shoe combinations, which is the nicest thing I can bring myself to say about him right now.

It’s been a pretty incredible season to relive. I already wrote a season in review, so I won’t copy and paste the details, but Shamgoddam if this wasn’t one hell of a ride. They were 6-12, all but counted out, and I was 75 percent sure that on May 5, 2014, I’d be writing about the lottery odds as they relate to Andrew Wiggins. Even when things began turning around – and it wasn’t as unlikely as we way remember, given how well the pieces suddenly fit on paper – it was tough to believe. I think we all spent a great deal of time waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And then they reached .500 with a win over Indiana on New Year’s Day. That shoe didn’t drop. They stayed hot into the All-Star break. No Kobes, no Jordans. They won nine of 12 out of the break. Not a Puma or Red October.

I guess you could say that the shoe finally dropped on Sunday’s final play, but that would be a disservice to the season and that playoff series. The clock didn’t strike midnight and turn the Raptors back into a pumpkin – they simply lost, narrowly, to a team of nearly equal standing. In 11 meetings, the Nets won 6-5 but the score was tied 1,070-1,070. That’s nuts. I employed snark at the start of the series when some suggested that experience would be the difference in the series. The gap was enormous, in numbers and in plain sight, especially in Games 1, 5 and 6. Experience didn’t win the Nets the series, of course, but it may have served as a tiebreaker when the two teams played 528 minutes this season to a dead heat. Someone had to win, and the Nets hung on.

This series actually pushed me towards investing more heavily in the intangible. The Nets were more composed in Game 1 and knew exactly what to do later in the series with their backs against the wall. They knew how to leverage a sometimes loosely refereed series and were adept at judging when the tide was turning to a more closely-called affair (note: I’m not going to harp on the officiating right now, but I’ll be GIFing Amir Johnson’s fouls from yesterday for a post tomorrow, because I hate myself).

At the same time, the Raptors kept winning games despite playing well below their standard. It’s tough to explain that, and it leaves little room for interpretation: heart matters. Guts matter. Attitude matters. This team refused to die all season long and fought until literally the very final buzzer on Sunday. I have no doubt that if the Raptors had been down 30 late in Game 7, they would have kept fighting and chipping away. If the game continued as a tie? Kyle Lowry would probably still be out on the floor, and Amir Johnson would still be out there limping like a White Walker, had he not fouled out. I’m surprised they were able to get Lowry up off the floor when the game ended, to be honest.

And that kinda brings us back to the picture. Like I said, it’s perfect. This team genuinely seems to like each other – for the first time, I had occasional press access this year, and can actually speak to that beyond just what we see on the screen – and support each other. Lowry laying on the ground, surely awash in emotion, being consoled by his co-pilot of this team, while the ACC and Maple Leaf Square outside rained down their appreciative support.

It wasn’t just me that loved this team, obviously. The team really, truly captured the heart of the city over the course of the season and the past few weeks. Record-setting television ratings that outstripped the NHL playoffs, insane comment and traffic numbers here at RR, nationally televised games, hundreds watching the game outside in the rain…it was all enough that the normally prickly Nets even gave out serious, unprompted dap to the crowd, and as I write this, quotes from locker clean-out day continue to filter in on Twitter showing that the Raptors definitely noticed and appreciated it, too. Maybe that means nothing at all. Maybe all it means is a couple of nationally televised games next year. Maybe it means Lowry stays, Andrew Wiggins pulls an Eric Lindros and demands to be traded on draft night and Kevin Durant signs here in 2016. Probably the last one, actually.

We did the quick react and post-game stuff, and plenty of people already did more serious season reviews elsewhere. I’ll get into that eventually too, with player season recaps, offseason speculation and analysis, draft stuff, maybe even doubling back to this series to do some breakdown style stuff. It’ll come. Today’s about the feels, though.

This is probably the most affected I’ve ever been from the outcome of a sporting event. That’s probably really dumb. Especially since I’m now supposed to, I guess, be more of a journalist than a blogger (“no cheering in the press box” and all), but I can’t help it. This was the most fun I’ve had following a team for an entire season. It’s the most engaged I’ve been with writing. It’s the most engaged I’ve felt with a community of fans (and readers). This year’s Raptors team earned that and rewarded those of us who followed along with a pretty epic first round series. Yeah, they lost, in gut-wrenching fashion, and it’s left me such that all I can do is ramble, but it doesn’t mean the season wasn’t a success. It was, unquestionably, unless you’re still beating the tanking drum (and if you are, you missed out on one hell of a season in the meantime). Fanbase, identity, experience, gains were made in each of those areas, and they could very will be a factor in the future.

For now, though, we hurt, and we appreciate. It was far more fun a year than any of us expected and the Raptors did us no disservice in how they went out. We The North.