With the Raptors down 13 at the end of the first quarter I had to go take a walk. It was the first time in memory where I couldn’t physically bear to watch a game because of how close we’d come to getting to the Finals, and how close we were to blowing it. I walked south on Dufferin St. near Katz’s Deli and my mind wandered back. Way back. Opening day at Skydome. Beating the 72-win Bulls. Drafting Vince. That rivalry with the Knicks. Chris Childs forgetting the score. Vince leaving. Vince beating us. The Babcock blunders. Chris Bosh working his ass off on terrible teams. Building around Bargnani. Bryan Colangelo. The DeRozan years of coming up short. Losing Game 7 to the Nets. Getting swept by Washington. Losing over and over and over again to the Cavs. And now this. This was not going to be another page in the book of misery. It couldn’t be because this team was something different. It had someone different. I had to believe it or else why even bother? The cigarettes came and went faster than I could keep track in the rainy drizzle. I replayed random events in my head: Milt Palacio’s backwards pass in Orlando, Richard Jefferson intercepting Jose Calderon’s pass to Chris Bosh, Bokie Nachbar’s gut-wrenching threes, Andrea Bargnani guarding Hedo Turkoglu, Bradley Beal screening off for a three. No! This team was different. It had to be. I headed back. The heartbeat was back to normal. The breathing was familiar.
The second half saw the Raptors face a bigger deficit but for reasons unknown my nerves were calmer. The Bucks lead ballooned to 15 late in the third and my dad, an immigrant like myself who grew up watching cricket and ditched it for the Raptors, goes: “the rest of the quarter will decide the game”. He was right. This lead needed to be down to 7 or 8 heading into the fourth and there wasn’t much happening on the court that trended in that direction. Until it did. The Raptors trimmed it to five only for the bench to convert it into a lead. This team was different.
Whereas other Raptors teams folded, this one stays resilient. Where others succumbed to the pressure, they rise to the occasion. In moments of weakness we still lament whether the “old Raptors” are hiding somewhere between the lines. Danny Green bricking three straight open threes in the first gave you pause of whether it was same old, same old. Pascal Siakam quivering on open looks made you wonder if they’d prove fatal. Throughout Game 6 and the post-season there have been moments where you fear that they’ll surrender. On every occasion they’ve pulled through making me question whether it’s the team that’s scared or whether it’s just me who’s terrified of being hurt. So far, it’s just me.
Unfazed is one of my favorite words in the English language. A short two syllable word that speaks volumes. “Not dismayed or disconcerted; undaunted, e.g., He was unfazed by his previous failures.” is the dictionary entry. I like it because it conveys an attribute that successful athletes (or even other professions) must have to succeed. One cannot let things fester and linger. One cannot dwell on the past when the only way is forward. One cannot let their past failures negatively affect future outcomes. Kawhi Leonard is that. He is unfazed. He is someone who plays the first minute exactly the way he plays the 46th. His composure is contagious and it can be seen gradually permeating the rest of the team. The sense of belief that Leonard has in his own game is instilling confidence in others. He is the rock that others lean on when they’re stumbling, knowing fully well that he won’t give way like so many others have. He had eight points and one assist in that third quarter closure which cut the lead to five, including a rebound off his own missed FT which was pure hustle and timing.
Sandwiching those two stretches are two tales of their own.
First on the front end of it was Kyle Lowry. Our expectations of Lowry have changed whether we acknowledge it or not. Scoring punch is not what we all want from him anymore. Of course we’re delighted when it’s there but it’s not the primary way to measure his impact. We’ve recognized that now because Kyle has figured out where he best fits on the team. If Kawhi Leonard is the armour and sword then Kyle Lowry is the knight whose soul furnishes the charge. Lowry is the heartbeat of the team and his two back-to-back threes that preceded the run to end the third put the Raptors in a position to make that run to begin with. It was an instance of Lowry stepping up to fill a vacuum that only he could fill: ball in hand, a defense on its heels, enough space in the right position, nothing forced. Go back a few years to Game 7 against Brooklyn and Lowry being blocked by Paul Pierce to end the series. That is not Kyle. He’s not the guy you call a clear out for with trophies on the line. He can help you get those trophies in many, many ways, but asking that of him (or of DeMar DeRozan for that matter) has always felt too tall of a task and too unfair of an ask.
Lowry is a basketball generalist and not a specialist of any kind. He does many things well and focusing him on doing them well means having the right players around him, which the Raptors finally have. Shooters he can kick out to, big men he can roll or pop with, and all that without being responsible for offensive load. The reduced responsibility of scoring has unshackled him to focus on basketball, not just scoring.
On the back end of it was the bench. By the time Kawhi Leonard entered the game for Norman Powell with 8:30 left the Raptors had a 2 point lead. The bench had gone +7 in that stretch. Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam had done what the Raptors have usually relied on Leonard to do: bring them back. The much-maligned bench (and rightfully so) struggled against the Magic, was swamped against Philly and was sputtering in the first four games against Milwaukee. Over the last two games all that has been forgotten. That’s sports. People remember the last thing you did and if you did it on a big stage with the lights on then all the better for you. It may be irrational but what isn’t? Most people only think they think rationally. Everyone is irrational, and so is our relationship with Fred Van Vleet, Danny Green or anyone else who swings on the unreasonable pendulum of love and hate.
I’ve never been much into analytics but I do believe in the law of averages, and last week I wrote about how it was about to kick in for our bench and lo and behold, Fred Van Vleet showed up. Up next is Danny Green who I firmly believe will bounce back against Golden State. I possess no insights to his practice routines and have no connections to the Raptors. I do know when a guy needs to take a few days off. Green needs to have a couple days where he wakes up late, has some coffee, listens to some music, plays some video games and does some light shooting. I believe he’s far more suited to guarding Klay Thompson than he is Khris Middleton because I feel he can anticipate what Thompson will do better than what Middleton does. He’ll also get more space against Thompson, and I find the game will generally be more open which works in Green’s favor.
The Raptors have perhaps put one or two complete games together in this entire run. They’ve gone from strength to strength with Leonard being the core piston, but they’ve rarely had their engine roar. Playoff experience compounds over years and tends to only pay off after some time, as the Bucks who are early in their journey found out. For the Raptors this extended post-season has given the quick-learning Pascal Siakam a chance to think about how defenses have adjusted to him, and he’s starting to make some adjustments, notably in his passing and offensive off-the-ball positioning. Perhaps we’ll see a revitalized Siakam against Golden State, one that has taken some time to reflect on what he’s experienced over the last six weeks. I believe we will.
That fear I mentioned earlier – the one that made me take in the dusk under the lights of Katz’s Deli – was nowhere to be found in the fourth quarter even as proceedings became tense. It was because this team is different. Don’t take my word for it: we’re in the NBA Fucking Finals.