Kawhi Leonard fends off Kevin Durant in Toronto’s OT 131-128 win against the Golden State Warriors during the regular season. Photo credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports/REUTERS
A couple of days ago a table at Nick’s Lounge was locked into the final moments of the Toronto Raptors vs Golden State Warriors (sound off of course).
The Raptors missed the shot at the end of regulation forcing the game into overtime. The table sighed and shuffled out.
No one had the courage to tell them the game was not live and merely a replay of one of their two regular-season matchups (the Raptors won both by the way), but hey, I can’t blame them for being excited.
The Toronto Raptors made history Saturday night by winning the Eastern Conference after trailing 0-2 (*baritone announcer voice* with their backs against the wall…) to the likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry will lead the Raps against the reinvigorated Splash Brothers and the Golden State Warriors.
The Dubs will be missing the-best-player-in-basketball-they-say Kevin Durant for at least Game 1 and maybe more in their bid for their fourth title in five straight NBA Finals appearances.
Five straight Finals appearances? Even Jordan’s Bulls never did that.
Personally, I never thought I’d see the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Final in my lifetime.
If anything, I’ve been waiting for the carriage to return to a pumpkin at midnight, especially after Kawhi Leonard’s shot-heard-round-the-world in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, which somehow hit every part of the rim and clanked home.
Aaron Sorkin’s editor’s pen should’ve gone to work on that script.
I remember growing up and watching Andrea Bargnani’s cringe-worthy Primo pasta commercials, Jarrett Jack’s awkward elbow jump shots, and Kris Humphries jetting town and landing Kim Kardashian for a few months of – what can only be assumed as – interesting marriage.
Fast forward ten years and the Toronto Raptors guided by President Masai Ujiri have changed the landscape of pro and arguably amateur basketball in Canada.
They acquired star power in a league that requires stars to win.
They drafted well in a league you’re rarely rewarded for doing so and groomed players like Demar DeRozan, a surging Kyle Lowry, and unknown gem like Pascal Siakim into all-stars or soon-to-be.
They’ve won five division titles since 2014 and perennially hover over 50 wins a season.
Sure, Drake got involved too.
Whether it was awkward lint-rolling courtside in the Brooklyn Nets series or his unknown massage therapist skills performed on head coach Nick Nurse, his name at least helped the Raptors gain some social gravitas – a bougie Canadian version of basketball fans Jack Nicholson or Jay-Z and Beyonce.
Suddenly, the Raptors with sustained success and winning basketball weren’t just Toronto’s team.
They were ‘We the North.’
They were the embodiment of Canadian basketball – Canada’s team.
Three-pointers weren’t just from beyond the arc – they were shot from Peterborough or Victoria or Red Deer as play-by-play commentator Matt Devlin would exclaim.
Meanwhile, for the first time in NBA history, two first overall draft picks were from Canada.
Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins were the poster boys of a rising tide of young Canadian basketball talent that pundits suggest could contend for a medal at upcoming Olympics Games in just a few years.
The Raptors for all intents and purposes had recovered after Vinsanity and Chris Bosh’s departure – so much so they could be disloyal to their face of the franchise Demar DeRozan and trade him anyway.
And for what? A one-time NBA Finals MVP with only one year left on his contract, a mysterious quadricep injury, and an allegedly weak appetite to even play in Toronto in Kawhi Leonard last summer.
Now, they’ve made history and hold home-court advantage against one of the five greatest NBA dynasties of all-time.
The brashness of Ujiri paid off.
In a league driven by superstars and ratings – Ujiri’s gamble means the Raptors have a seat at the championship table and a force of nature that harkens the name Michael Jordan (although no one name drops Michael Jordan so casually as ESPN anyway).
It is very unlikely Kawhi will resign after this season since he’ll have options to go everywhere.
But this will not be an off-season filled with moping and disgruntlement.
Some say they even have a shot to win.
If they beat the Warriors – the team of the decade, the type of team whose world we’re just livin’ in – the Order of Canada is coming Kawhi’s way and a nation of young Canadian basketball players could be jet-fuelled into a global force in basketball for the next decade.