OAKLAND — The contrast was striking. As the Toronto Raptors were walking off the floor stoic, determined, locked into the moment, thousands of fans were overwhelmed by what had just happened, what might happen, by what is happening.
In the opposite corner of Oracle Arena, a crowd kept growing. As Warriors fans filed out, Raptors fans didn’t want to leave. Far from home, they wanted to be together, they wanted to be with the only people who could possibly understand.
There turned out to be a lot of them. Thousands likely. And well after the horn sounded they made their way to a single corner and did what Raptors fans do.
They chanted ‘We the North.’ They waved Canadian flags. They waved Raptors banners. They popped their jerseys for the cameras. They sang ‘O Canada.’
No one could believe it. Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Webber, working on the NBA TV set on the floor kept looking up in wonder. These things don’t happen in NBA arenas, not on the road, not in the Finals.
Day 1 Raptors analyst Leo Rautins said the scene reminded him of European club basketball or perhaps international competition, where the passions are tribal and run deep. Longtime NBA veteran and NBA TV analyst Dennis Scott said it reminded him of the crowds at the Final Four, where alumni gather to support their alma maters.
For Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia, who has become a celebrity for his enthusiasm for the team since its debut in 1995 — he’s never missed a home game and not many on the road either of late — it was a little piece of heaven, right there in a rundown arena due to be demolished.
The Raptors — his Raptors — had done the unthinkable with their 105-92 win in Game 4 against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, the Splash Brothers-driven dynasty gunning for their fourth championship in their fifth-consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.
The Raptors had just swept Oakland and were heading back to Toronto with a 3-1 lead and a chance to clinch the NBA Championship at home.
“It is the most amazing moment in my 24 years as Raptors fan,” said Bhatia, as well-known as many of the players at this point. “Look at where we are! We are standing in Golden State’s arena with one more win to go on Monday and we are going to be the champions. We are going to have the championship in Toronto, in Canada.”
It’s difficult to imagine, but it’s true.
The Raptors have taken the best the Warriors have to offer, emerged from their corner unblinking and countered with a series of hard, precise body blows that have the Warriors reeling and on the brink.
Toronto has three chances to land the final shot. The Warriors can only look at their championship pedigree and hope they have enough magic to do what only one team has ever done in the NBA Finals – come back from trailing 3-1.
“It’s not a good feeling right now, obviously,” said Stephen Curry, who had 27 points but was held to 9-of-22 shooting in 43 minutes one game after he exploded for a playoff career-high 47. “It’s an opportunity for us to just flip this whole series on its head, and you got to do it one game at a time. It sounds cliche, and for us that’s literally the only way we’re going to get back in this series, is give everything we got for 48 minutes, everybody that sets foot on that floor in Game 5.
“In our locker room we’re talking about believing, everybody out there believes that we can get this done. We got to — we can draw on those experiences that we had back in the day and see what happens.”
The one team to fall victim to giving up a 3-1 lead in the Finals? These Warriors, who lost three straight to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, the lost opportunity that kept them from winning four-straight titles.
“We got to win one game,” said Draymond Green, the linchpin of a Warriors defence that has been shaky through four games, giving up 115 points per 100 possessions. “We win one, then we’ll build on that. But I’ve been on the wrong side of 3-1 before, so why not make our own history.”
The Raptors are in a much better position to make their own history, but they were in no mood to look ahead after Game 4.
“You just got to be patient with it,” said Kawhi Leonard. “We were two games away, four games away, it doesn’t matter until you get that fourth win. We just have to stay confident in ourselves, be patient, don’t try to rush things, and see how it plays out.”
Game 4 was really two games in one: the first half, when they struggled to put up points, shot 34 per cent from the floor and had to feel fortunate they were trailing only 46-42.
The second half? The Raptors looked dominant, they looked like a team the Warriors have no solutions for — short of a healthy Kevin Durant returning to save them and of that there are no guarantees.
The Raptors’ win was keyed by a ferocious third quarter as they outscored the Warriors 37-21 and held them to just seven field goals.
To no one’s surprise, it was Leonard who ripped the lid off the basket, coming out from halftime with two quick triples to loosen up the Warriors’ defence. They took the lead for good when Serge Ibaka pulled up for a triple in transition on a pass from Kyle Lowry to make it 64-61. The Raptors finished the quarter on a 20-6 run with Leonard shouldering the load as he ended up scoring 17 of his game-high 36 in the third. They led by 12 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Warriors briefly threatened with a Curry triple that cut the lead to eight with 2:56 left, but the Raptors went on a quick 6-0 run to solve that problem.
It was a formula that has proven almost unstoppable of late as the Raptors won for the seventh time in their last eight post-season starts: Leonard carrying the load with enough crucial assistance to get them over the top.
On Friday night, it came in the form of Ibaka’s 20 points on 12 shots off the bench and a whole-team defensive effort that held the Warriors under 100 points for the first time in 26 post-season starts dating back to last season’s Western Conference Finals.
“I thought we played really tough tonight, we were taking a lot of punches early and we just kept standing in there and playing,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Then we were able to kind of exert our will in the second half.”
And as they marched off the floor a party broke out behind them, in their absence and in their honour.
It’s not that it wasn’t noticed.
“It’s awesome, first of all, right. I think we travel, our fans travel really well in the regular season. We get this a lot on the road. It’s really amazing,” said Nurse. “It’s Canada’s team, and Canadians from all over the country are traveling down … [it] surprises me a little in The Finals because I don’t think it’s that easy to get tickets to these games, so our fans are working extra hard and being extra vocal, and we appreciate that.”
But the Raptors aren’t allowing themselves a corresponding giddiness. Not yet.
Said Lowry, the longest-serving Raptor, the one who understands the fans hunger best because it matches his own:
“We didn’t do nothing yet. We haven’t done anything. We won three games. It’s the first of four. We understand that.
“They’re the defending champs, and they’re not going to go out easy. They’re going to come and fight and prepare to play the next game, and that’s how we’re preparing ourselves, that we have to — we got to prepare ourselves to play the next game. We haven’t done anything yet.”
That’s not true, exactly.
The win at Oracle was a win like no other for the Raptors, a notch above any even in a post-season that has loaded one signature moment onto the other in haphazardly constructed pyramid of joy.
The mechanics of it didn’t matter. In this case results far outweigh the process.
And yes, Lowry is right, they technically haven’t done anything yet.
But Bhatia and the thousands of Raptors fans at Oracle and millions more watching at home were right too. The win was the greatest moment in franchise history — for now.
The Raptors — those Raptors — are heading home needing one more win to secure their first NBA Championship, the first that would go outside the United States, the one that doesn’t go to the Warriors, the latest NBA dynasty.
The Raptors are coming home with a chance to clinch a title. The Larry O’Brien Trophy will be in the building for Game 5, hearts in everyone’s throats.