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The third installment in a four-part eulogy of the 2013-14 Toronto Raptors’ season.

In case you missed it, I wrote about the offseason and preseason in part one, and their early season struggles in part two. If you haven’t done so already, go back and give them a quick read. They will be well worth your time, maybe.

***

In retrospect, it’s tempting to paint Rudy Gay as the villain.

It fits perfectly like a plot element in a work of fiction. Gay’s departure was the inciting incident that prompted the protagonist to head down the path to salvation. While Gay was here, the Raptors lost. After he left, the Raptors won.

The reality really isn’t that simple. Gay’s departure did indeed set the Raptors onto the right path, but that discounts the efforts of those who remained. In the words of DeMar DeRozan:

You can sink and drown, or you can stay afloat. And we’re out here like Michael Phelps

And swam, they did. In the face of yet another classic disappointing Raptors season, DeRozan, Amir Johnson, Kyle Lowry and the coaching staff staved off defeat. Instead of laying down their arms and heading their separate ways, they banded together, and found success, as a team.

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The first game the Raptors played following the Gay trade was in Staples Center against the Los Angeles Lakers. I found the contrast in mindsets between the two franchises fascinating. The theme of the night was hope.

On one side, Lakers fans were jubilant, and rightfully so — Kobe Bryant was making his season debut after missing their first 18 games recovering from an Achilles injury. On the other, Raptors fans were merely hopeful for change, whatever it may be. There was plenty of anticipation for an early season showdown between two near-.500 teams.

For Lakers fans, Kobe is everything. He’s a symbol of their success. The Lakers have one of, if not the most storied histories in professional basketball, and Kobe has been their constant for nearly two decades. Lakers fans are reviled for their arrogance and bravado, but most of them know nothing other than success. They captured five titles in a span of eleven years, all with Kobe at the helm. He is more than just a historic superstar in the eyes of Lakers fans — he is hope personified. His name will forever linger on the lips of championship lore, and he was about to make his triumphant return.

In the same way, Raptors fans were also hopeful, although theirs was divided. As they had been all season, opinions were split on the proposition of tanking. Some fans wanted the team to kick the losing effort into overdrive, sneaking away during commercial breaks to visit Draft Express and the Trade Machine. Others merely hoped for better performance, and prayed that the loss of Gay would bless some meaning upon a lost season.

The game foreshadowed each teams’ fortunes to come. The Raptors stormed out to an early lead on the back of Johnson, who mercilessly abused the Lakers’ porous interior defense with a steady dose of pick-and-rolls. On the other end, Kobe looked nothing like a superstar, and every bit the part of a 35-year-old coming off major surgery. The short-staffed Raptors easily captured the victory, with Johnson leading all scorers with 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting. His efforts were complemented by that of Lowry and DeRozan’s who chipped in with 23 and 26 points respectively. Kobe scored just 9 points on 9 field goal attempts.

***

The Gay trade left the Raptors without an identity, so the team had to adopt a new one on the fly. The backcourt tandem of DeRozan and Lowry took the reigns to a team for the first time in their careers, while the personalities of Johnson and head coach Dwane Casey wove itself into the team’s fabric.

The new leadership scheme gave rise to a blue collar approach to the game. For years, Raptors coaches (save for Jay Triano) tried to impart hard work and a defense-first philosophy onto the team, but the message rang hollow without the players to follow suit. Hedo Turkoglu and Andrea Bargnani were far from leaders. With Lowry’s bulldog mentality, DeRozan’s humble attitude and Johnson’s all-out hustle serving as the loudest voices on and off the court, Casey’s message of defense finally materialized into a tangible personality for the team.

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The Raptors followed up their win with a quick three-game homestead before heading out to the West coast. They were scheduled to face the Mavericks, Thunder, Spurs and Knicks. No Raptor, short of Jonas Valanciunas, was guaranteed a seat on the flight home. It was widely expected that they would drop at least three games on their trip, thus leaving them with a record of 11-17 heading into Christmas.

The most discussed player on the roster was Lowry, whose name was linked to the Knicks and Nets. Ironically, his bargain price tag of $6 million made him an easy target for the capped out, extravagance-heavy teams from New York. A deal with the Knicks, which would have seen the Raptors net Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert and potentially a 2018 first rounder, kicked up the most dirt. With so many floundering teams failing expectations around the league, Lowry was seen by many as a silver-bullet solution to many of their problems.

***

With trade winds circling the team, they headed into Dallas to take on Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks. Blake wrote the pregame, and his sentiments aligned with mine: he didn’t like the idea of tanking, but it seemed inevitable that the Raptors were headed down that path.

Things quickly went awry, as the Raptors trailed by as much as 15 points midway through the first half. To make matters worse, it was former Raptors point guard Jose Calderon dealing most of the damage with a barrage of three-pointers. The Mavericks came out swinging, and it looked as if the Raptors had been knocked out in the first round.

But then they came back. All the way back.

The Raptors nearly tied the score at halftime thanks to contributions from their newcomers. Through a four-minute stretch, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson netted five straight shots and thoroughly outplayed their counterparts.

The game remained tight until the final seconds of regulation. With the score knotted at 99 apiece, Shawn Marion sank a running floater with 21 seconds left. Yet another heartbreak looked to be in the cards for the Raptors, but DeRozan answered right back with a jumper which sent the game into overtime. He hit another with just under a minute left to put the Raptors ahead 109-108, setting up a wild finish.

The Mavericks countered with a three-point attempt from Dirk, which rimmed out. However, he managed to collect his own board, and find an open Calderon, who also missed from deep. He too was bailed out, as Brandan Wright managed to snag the rebound. The ball eventually found its way into the hands of Dirk, who posted up against Amir Johnson to set up his classic one-legged fadeaway jumpshot. Incredibly, his shot also missed. Valanciunas finally put a stop the madness by securing the board.

Against the odds, the Raptors managed to hold on by the skin of their teeth and capture the 109-108 victory in overtime. The scene in Dallas was heartwarming. Amir Johnson, who corralled Dallas’ final miss, lay spent on the ground, with his teammates mobbing him. He looked exhausted, but he sported a goofy grin on his face. In that moment, thoughts of trade rumors were temporarily forgotten — they were a team.

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Their momentum carried over into the next game. Once again, the Raptors were the heavy underdogs against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but their defense-first mentality had taken form and grown fangs. Lowry spearheaded the attack, outplaying his counterpart in Russell Westbrook. Lowry’s bulldog mentality tamed Westbrook, and made him to look like a harmless pug in comparison. Lowry finished with 22 points, 7 rebounds, 9 assists and four steals while his counterpart scored 27 points, grabbed 9 rebounds, but also committed 5 turnovers. The Raptors improbably snagged the 104-98 victory.

***

The New Year came and went with the roster intact. Lowry was still a Raptor, Dwane Casey was still the coach, and with the Eastern Conference beset by injuries, they found themselves within striking distance of the third seed.

I was hooked on the team’s newfound success. The underdog storyline in sports always manages to pique my interest. I rooted for the Grizzlies in their last two playoff runs. I rooted for Suns’ last gasp with Nash at the helm. I welled up reading Moneyball. There’s something about overcoming odds that makes the victory satisfying.

But I struggled to fully embrace the team for fear of waking from the dream. Wins against the Thunder and Mavericks felt surreal, and it couldn’t possibly last. There was an element of luck at play, that much was certain. But how much was luck, and how much was real? The treat of a Lowry trade loomed overhead like a stormcloud waiting to rain on the parade. I came prepared and brought an umbrella.

I pegged the Pacers game as a loss. Their post-All-Star break fall from grace has since tarnished their reputation, but don’t get it twisted — the Pacers were the best team in the league to start 2014. Roy Hibbert clogged the paint with his largess, forming the sturdy backbone for the league’s best defense. Paul George’s jumper was on-point, and Lance Stephenson, ironically nicknamed “Born Ready”, had finally broken out into an amphetamine-fueled reincarnation of Steve Francis (no, not this post-amphetamine withdraw version of Stevie). Indiana was the buzzsaw that was set to cleave the Raptors’ upstart hopes in two.

I live-tweeted the game on ESPN NBA’s Daily Dime accounts which forced me to contain my excitement. The Raptors built an 8-point lead to end the first quarter. Lowry drew a key charge on Hibbert early on, which sent the hulking center to the bench with his second foul of the game. This opened up the interior, which freed up lanes for the Raptors’ guards to drive through. However, their lead was shortlived, as Indiana’s defense locked down and held the Raptors to just 14 points in the second quarter. Indiana took a four-point advantage into halftime.

The third quarter was Indiana’s calling card. They made a habit of clamping down and clobbering opponents to begin the second half, but the Raptors hung tight. After the Pacers lobbed their first barrage, the bench came in, which allowed the Raptors to capitalize on the counterattack. Of all people, John Salmons hit a triple to end the quarter, which put the Raptors ahead by three going into the final frame.

By this point, I could hardly contain myself. My tweets on the game were incredibly one-sided, as my analysis of the game amounted to nothing more than a few refrains of cheers for my hometown Raptors. In-between the third and fourth quarters, I rushed to the fridge, plopped open my fourth beer of the night, and steeled myself for a roller-coaster finish.

The game remained incredibly tight until midway through the fourth quarter. Both teams reinserted their starters for the final stretch with the game tied at 74 with just under 7 minutes left to go. I was hollering and hooting with every Raptors basket, and muttering curses under my breath after every bullshit “verticality rule” granted to Hibbert.

DeRozan took overĀ  as the team’s closer, opting to attempt a smattering of mid-range shots with George draped all over him. He scored 8 points down the stretch, equaling the Pacers’ total. On the other end, George struggled to score with Terrence Ross matching him step for step.

The Raptors outscored the Pacers by a 21-8 point edge in the game’s final 7 minutes which set up a rather anticlimactic ending to the game. No free slices of pizza were awarded to those in attendance, yet the ACC was on its feet, giving a standing ovation to the effort on the court. Ross scored 18 points and held George to just 12. Valanciunas played Hibbert to a standstill. DeRozan shot poorly, but he paced all scorers with 26. I toasted the Raptors with my fifth beer of the night. It was a very good night indeed.

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In the grand scheme of things, it was just a single win within the context of a marathon 82-game season, but it represented something more in my mind — it cemented the team’s new reality. I had no qualms about the team contending for championships in the near future, but it was clear that they had stumbled into something special in the wake of Gay’s departure. DeRozan emerged as a quality scorer who was capable of netting baskets when defenses tightened late in games. Lowry finally capitalized on his potential as a lead guard capable of dictating play on both ends of the court. Ross and Valanciunas showed more than just flashes, and proved themselves to be quality contributors with plenty of room to grow. Dwane Casey and Amir Johnson’s gritty mentality spread to each and every member of the team until hard-nosed defense became its second nature.

Again, no one had any qualms about the team. There were no loony hopes of championships or deep playoff runs. The fanbase was merely swept up by the uncertainty and the excitement of the moment. The team was far from invincible, but they weren’t destined to lose either. They had stumbled ass-backwards into something special with an unlikely group of upstarts. They sparred with the puppies by day, yet somehow managed to run with the wolves by night. As a Raptors fan humbled by years of losing and disappointment, I neither asked, nor expected anything more. It felt good to feel something about the Raptors.