Raptors Lead

Raptors Rewrite 24 Years of Disappointment in Game 6

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Ersan Ilyasova hit two free throws to put his Milwaukee Bucks up 76-61 with just over two minutes to go in the 3rd quarter. Scotiabank Arena fell silent. A game 7 on the road felt imminent, and a feeling of hopelessness loomed over Raptors fans Canada-wide.

After all, this was far from the first time Raptors fans had this feeling.

LeBron’s drifting playoff game winner over OG Anunoby last season. Kyle Lowry‘s last-second floater denied by Paul Pierce to eliminate Toronto’s playoff run in 2014. Chris Bosh‘s blown layup at the buzzer in a late 2010 regular season game preventing the team a real shot at the playoffs. Even as far back as Vince Carter‘s clanked jumper looking to send his team to their first ever Conference Finals.

On the other hand, this season always had a different feel.

After keeping the same core together for five seasons, Team President Masai Ujiri swung for the fences and acquired former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. In return, he sent away fan favorite and franchise-leading scorer DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio. With Leonard on an expiring contract, it was seen as a risky one-year rental that could blow up in the Raptors’ faces.

As the season carried on, a sense of cautious optimism appeared. They added All-Star Marc Gasol to an already-talented roster and finished the regular season with the second best record in the league. However, anyone that has followed the Raptors over the past six years knew that what happens during the 82-game campaign means virtually nothing.

Any optimism from fans may have disappeared after Game 1 against their 1st round opponent, the Orlando Magic. DJ Augustin hit a deep three with four seconds left to shock the home crowd. To worsen the result, all-star point guard Kyle Lowry finished with a goose egg, zero points. Lowry, the only holdover from their original core in 2013, got thoroughly outplayed by journeyman Augustin.

Luckily, the Raptors turned it around and beat the Magic handily in five games, and had the Philadelphia 76ers up next. The series had its highs and lows, and all led to a pivotal Game 7 at home. 18 years after Carter missed the game winner against the same 76ers, the Raptors had their chance at revenge.

Kawhi caught the ball at the top of the arc, drove to the corner in four seconds and heaved a contested jumper over 7-footer Joel Embiid. The ball bounced high in the air. Then again. Again. And finally once more. After the 4th breathtaking bounce, the Raptors were heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

For just the second time in franchise history, the Raptors were four games away from a chance at playing for the title. Standing in their way were the NBA-leading 60-22 Milwaukee Bucks.

The Raptors led almost buzzer to buzzer in Game 1, but a brutal 4th quarter put them in a 0-1 hole. They were outscored 32-17 in the final frame of the 108-100 loss. More alarmingly, non-Lowry Raptors went 0-15 from the floor in the quarter. Game 2 was worse, as the 125-103 blowout loss put them in a devastating 0-2 chokehold.

Understandably, Raptors fans had reason for panic. Only 7% of NBA teams down 0-2 in a playoff series had come back to win. The Bucks only lost back-to-back games once all season. All odds were stacked up against them.

First, they would have to win both games at home. Following an exhausting double-overtime victory and easy 18-point blowout, they had accomplished that goal. The hard part would be winning a game in Milwaukee. As many love to mention, the series starts when a team wins a road game.

The Raptors did that with a gutsy victory at Fiserv Forum, giving them an opportunity to clinch their first ever NBA Finals appearance with a victory. Suddenly, history was within grasp.

It has been many long years for Raptors fans. Now considered a successful NBA franchise, things hadn’t always been that way. In reality, the poor draft picks, inability to keep talent, and blown playoff chances loomed large in diehard fans’ heads as the most important game in Raptors history approached. Unfortunately, years of misfortune makes it tough to think positively in tense situations.

Then again, the Raptors defied so many odds to get to this point. Lowry overcame DJ Augustin and thoroughly outplayed him in every game after Game 1. Leonard’s miraculous game winner was the first such one in Game 7 in NBA Playoff history. And the Bucks just came off losing their 3rd straight game for the 1st time all season to put the Raptors in this position.

In addition, the players in the Raptors’ rotation defied these same odds to even be playing in the league. Of the eight players in the playoff rotation, only four were 1st round picks, none before Kawhi Leonard at 15th. The same franchise that spend lottery picks on Aleksandar Radojevic, Rafael Araujo and Andrea Bargnani was winning with widely unheralded players.

All things aside, the team had the ability to put many years of bad luck, poor management and LeBron James behind them. Scotiabank Arena was full to capacity despite the hefty price tag. Over 5,000 more gathered in Jurassic Park, right outside of the stadium, looking to witness history. It seemed like the whole country of Canada was preparing for this moment. Hopeless fans, after years and years of heartbreak, had a reason to believe.

However, Ilyasova’s free throw to push the deficit to 15 left all of the celebration up in the air. The Raptors’ poor start and eventual comeback was washed down the drain. As Kawhi Leonard drove it to the hoop with just over 14 minutes left to go in the game, a pin drop could have fallen from the $800 nosebleed seats and all 20,000 fans in the stadium could have heard it.

At that moment, whether it was Drake’s sideline antics, Leonard’s continued heroics, or the basketball gods finally shining down in the North, things started to change. Kawhi’s drive resulted in an and-one finish. A strong end to the 3rd quarter left the team down only five heading into the 4th.

Much had been made by the media about the lack of talent surrounding Leonard throughout the playoffs. However, just to grab a breather, the Raptors started the biggest quarter in Franchise history with The Klaw on the bench. Toronto’s three reserves of Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell all started the quarter with a bucket. The Raptors came back, down 15 to grab the lead with their star off of the court.

Once he re-entered, Kawhi smashed a thunderous dunk over Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. This concluded an otherworldly 26-3 run, putting them up eight. They never trailed again.

For the first time in team history, the Toronto Raptors are heading to the NBA Finals. As a long time fan, those words were almost impossible to type. After 24 years of hopelessness, anguish and disappointment, Game 6 changed it all. Lifetime fans, casual fans and even new fans rejoiced along the streets of Toronto. In the end, an NBA Championship would be the sweetest icing on the cake, but just getting to this point is an experience in itself. Regardless of the result, May 25th, 2019 will be a landmark day in the history of Canadian sports.

On that day, Toronto Raptors‘ fans nationwide felt a new feeling; victory.

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About Matthew Winick

Matthew Winick is an avid basketball fan both from the NBA side, as well as NCAA hoops. A native of Toronto, Ontario, he is a lifetime Raptors fan and is just now reaping the benefits. He is currently studying Sport Media at Ryerson University in Toronto, and hopes to be talking sports with the best of them in his future. You can reach him on any social media @matthewwinick.

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