The last time Toronto Raptors fans could take a step back and admire what their team had achieved, there was an outpouring of thanks for years of disappointment. Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6.
Toronto’s team was hoping to force a Game 7, but the NBA’s king had apparently seen enough. The Raptors had pushed LeBron James to bring his ‘A’ game, and just like that, the series was over. It was a 26-point loss, but it didn’t take away from the fans’ appreciation for what Canada’s team had done over the three series and regular season before it.
Even James had to step back and take in what was happening around him. It was the ultimate respect.
Game 7 against the Miami Heat stands out, personally. Kyle Lowry leading the way as the Raptors erased the memory of that devastating loss in Philadelphia when Vince Carter’s shot bounced off the rim. It took 15 years (ironic) to get that monkey off their back. We remember the controversy of the graduation, the shot, and the aftermath. More than anything, we remember the shot.
What could have been. Frankly, the Raptors existence on the path of what might have been brought far more excitement than anything that happened on the court. What if Vince Carter made that shot? What if Carter and Tracy McGrady stayed together? What if Rob Babcock was never hired? Oh, and what if Bryan Colangelo didn’t select Andrea Bargnani with the only No.1 selection in franchise history?
In truth, these types of scenarios are played out with every fanbase.
Thankfully, the front office and players who have their fingerprints all over this era of Raptors basketball could care less about what ifs. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have stayed and backed Dwane Casey and his coaching staff even through a change as dramatic as we’ve seen on the offensive end this season.
Masai Ujiri has brought stability and trustworthiness to the front office and has placed that trust in his draft picks. The 2014 NBA draft is certainly a blemish on his resume, but nothing more. He’s had nothing but solid line drives since, and continued faith may see them come around home plate one day.
Think of all the teams LeBron has broken. The Boston Celtics fell apart at the seams when he took his talents to South Beach, so did the Indiana Pacers. The Atlanta Hawks may never be the same again. The Raptors have given themselves a chance to find out what happens if you do take these losses on the chin.
Gone are the what ifs. No more wondering what could have been, and so now we admire what is. First place in the Eastern Conference. Two all-star players. One all-star coaching staff. Your Toronto Raptors.
Dwane Casey may have earned bragging rights and the win Sunday night, but DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry can hold their heads high. The man from Compton led his team in scoring while the kid from north Philly led Team Steph in assists. Who knows, perhaps DeRozan was even an Antetokounmpo catch away from MVP honours.
How’s that for a what if? Arguably the greatest Raptor of all time now winning the Most Valuable Player award in front of not only his home fans, but his ailing father.
After the Raptors defeated the Chicago Bulls to enter the all-star break, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that this ball club already has 41 wins. They are 25 games over .500, and once again on pace to shatter the franchise record for wins in a season.
DeRozan still has a couple of years of improvement ahead of him, the point guard position appears secure between Lowry and Delon Wright, what happens with Fred VanVleet remains to be seen. Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam look to be the frontcourt of the future, while Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka have found a way to thrive together in the present. OG Anunoby looks as though he could make the small forward position his for many years to come and that means, for this franchise, the best is yet to come.
The playoff tests will follow soon for Toronto, and so will the scrutiny as the magnitude of every game and every play grows, but this is also the closest the team has looked to the real deal. Top four in both offense and defense is a feat accomplished only by the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, (Dwight Howard’s) Orlando Magic, and the Cleveland Cavaliers over the previous 10 seasons.
They are in rarefied air, but are still striving for more. Perhaps the next big moment will come in the playoffs, in crunch time, where the Raptors have struggled to find a rhythm this season. Perhaps it won’t. That’s a worry for another time.
Enjoy this moment now because it’s never happened before, but know that recent history suggests that this is likely just another checkpoint along their journey to the final destination.