The Toronto Raptors have never lost like this before. With their heads held high. Even after the first ever championship for the lone franchise north of the border, the team continues blazing new trails. They’ve lost in humiliation before. Plenty. From Paul Pierce blocks to John Wall sweeps to 10 in a row to LeBron James. They’ve lost in frustration, in recrimination, on the heels of Vince Carter’s graduation, suffering Chris Bosh and DeMar DeRozan collapses. The Raptors know playoff pain, were long defined by it. Then they won. And now, in this brave new world, there’s space for dignified exits.
Despite the parade of turnovers and poor offensive choices in the season’s final game, this is a dignified exit. They punched back into the game, as they always do. In the big picture, the Raptors were one of the great stories of this NBA season. The defending champion lost their Final-MVP, Kawhi Leonard, before the season began, which has never before happened in NBA history other than Michael Jordan’s 1995 and 1998 retirements. Even stranger for the Raptors, Leonard remained in the NBA. Translation: the Raptors faced a unique, bizarre, untried situation. They were expected to fade, if not from the playoff picture, then at least from real contention.
And they came out on fire.
The Raptors didn’t lose back-to-back games until December. Pascal Siakam began the season playing like an MVP candidate, scoring 28.0 points a game in the month of October. From January 15 to February 10 Toronto won a franchise-record 15 games in a row. The Raptors finished 53-19 in the regular season, finishing with a better record and net rating in the year after Leonard than the year with him. They did all of that with continued injuries to all of their top players, other than OG Anunoby. No matter the lineup, no matter the opponent, no matter the city in which the game was held, Toronto was a solid bet to win.
Behind their defense and incredibly buy-in, Toronto was a threshing machine. They went on an early-season West Coast road trip and topped the Los Angeles Lakers without Kyle Lowry or Serge Ibaka; Chris Boucher dominated the game, recording a highlight for the ages when blocking LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the same possession. The Raptors never showed fear. They never gave up. Against the Dallas Mavericks in December, the Raptors trailed by 30 points in the late third quarter before fighting for the win and recording the largest comeback in franchise history. The lineup that did it, that won its minutes by 30 points, was Lowry, Boucher, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Terence Davis, and Malcolm Miller.
Joel Embiid, a true superstar who averaged 23.0 points per game this season and dominated practically every center in his path, averaged a mere 5.0 points per game against the Toronto Raptors, as Marc Gasol continued his multi-year adoption Process of the Sixers’ centerpiece.
Lowry and Siakam played together in the All-Star game, where Lowry took multiple charges, including one from recently departed Kawhi Leoanrd. The Raptors went 7-1 in the Orlando Bubble seeding process and finished with the second-best record in the league. They completed their first-ever franchise sweep over the Brooklyn Nets, the same franchise that beat Lowry in his first Toronto playoff appearance in 2014.
You’re going to see a one take quite often during these next few days as we all eulogize this Raptors’ season. Namely: the Raptors never were going to win it all this year without Kawhi Leonard. That’s not true. Yes, this year was a transition year for the Raptors, but they were still legitimate championship contenders with a real claim on defending their title. If the Raptors hadn’t bizarrely laid an egg in the first quarters of game one, game five, if Marcus Smart hadn’t hit five triples in nearly as many minutes in game two, if they hadn’t committed 18 turnovers in game seven. Ifs, yes, but strange occurrences. Strange occurrences will happen when good teams lose in the playoffs. That’s what it takes to beat a good team. Ask the 2018-19 Philadelphia 76ers. Or the 2017-18 Houston Rockets. Or the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors. This isn’t to say that the Raptors deserved to win. No, but they could have. They were not outclassed, but merely outperformed across seven grueling games. And the Raptors wouldn’t have been outclassed no matter what happened. This Raptors team had a real claim to win the championship, and it took a great team to beat them.
I’ve talked to a lot of people during this season, both fans and media. The one refrain that I keep hearing, that I can’t escape, is that this season is so many peoples’ favourite Raptors season of all time. More than last year’s championship year. There were no expectations, no embedded history of failure, no ghosts in the machine. There was only basketball, and the Raptors outperformed expectations time and again. They played harder than their opponents, time and again. They won and won and won, and the players remained role models deserving of our praise on and off the basketball court. Approximately half the players on the roster recorded career years. Nick Nurse won Coach of the Year.
The Raptors have a long history of disappointment. This is not one of those seasons. Currently, with this year in the rear-view, the Toronto Raptors are a snake shedding their skin. Gone are the days of playoff disappointment. Gone are the days of frustration and failure. The team, run by Masai Ujiri, has a championship-or-bust mentality, and the Raptors will face changes as a result of the playoff exit, coupled with realities of the shifting financial landscape. Soon the Raptors may look totally different. Either this or next off-season, Toronto will have a max slot in cap space, and we all know who Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster are chasing. The Raptors have salad days ahead. In OG Anunoby, Siakam, and Terence Davis, Toronto has a core of young blue-chippers who will thrive in the future. For all its success, this was a transition year, yet the Raptors made it one of the most fun, most enjoyable transition years I can remember experiencing.
No matter what, the Raptors will look different in coming seasons. There are core players who won’t return. Fan favorites. It’s possible that this will be the last Raptors’ playoff run for Kyle Lowry, Toronto’s alpha and omega, the superstar of the past half decade, the driver of winning. For whomever does leave, appreciate their time in Toronto and the role they played in winning a championship and making this year such a wonderful mix of carefree success.
Toronto lost to a hardened team in the Boston Celtics. A team that could legitimate win the NBA championship this year. A team that handled Toronto’s best body blows, including a buzzer-beating game winner, and a double overtime win, yet Boston stayed confident, stayed on top. And yes, Toronto held game seven in the palm of their hands. It was their misplay, not Boston’s play, that eliminated the Raptors. But as they always do, they punched back in, had a chance. They lost, perhaps as a metaphor, respectably. As a result, Toronto’s title defense is over. And look, this hurts. This hurts because Toronto could have gone far had they not committed so many darn turnovers against Boston in game seven. Losing is painful. But don’t cry because this season is done.
Smile because it happened.
Sports is ultimately about entertainment. The Raptors gave us that and then some this season. Even in their final loss, the Raptors played their hearts out. They didn’t win this year, and that makes it a lost opportunity, but not a failure. And the Raptors have white shores and blue skies ahead.