Legend status awaits Raptors if they can pass ‘the ultimate test’

Toronto Raptors' Kawhi Leonard discusses how the experience of playing in the City of Toronto has been different from his first impressions when playing for San Antonio Spurs.

TORONTO — Would you want it any other way?

Sure you’d take it. Over all those years the Toronto Raptors were either floundering, flailing or falling backwards, any trip to the NBA Finals would have been the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket found in a winter jacket — sure, maybe it wasn’t cash for life, but it was a lot better than nothing, more than you had.

And maybe the Portland Trail Blazers or Houston Rockets or any number of other possible opponents might even have given the Raptors a better chance at the big prize, a clearer path to seeing their reflection in the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

But playing the Golden State Warriors on your home court as they try to add another layer to their championship legacy has already assured the Raptors of one thing: Win or lose, they’re part of history.

Pull off the upset and you’re legends.

As one member of the Raptors organization put it as he gazed out at the NBA Finals media circus: "This is the ultimate test, the unsolvable problem. You have to figure out to how to stop Steph, Klay and Draymond."

Many have tried, now it’s up to Raptors head coach Nick Nurse and a team that has been put together on the fly, with more playoff games together — Game 1 will be No. 19 of this run — than they had games together in the regular season.

At stake is the life of a party that has been building as the Raptors’ playoff momentum has been growing. The series-clinching win over Milwaukee in Game 6 was an endorphin rush almost like no other in Toronto sports history, although anyone in the building for Jose Bautista’s bat flip home run in the 2015 MLB playoffs could relate. Everyone wants it to continue, Jurassic Park replicas are springing up across Southern Ontario.

Even Kawhi Leonard has taken note.

"Now I’m here for 41 games during the regular season and you get to live in a city, see guys or girls wearing hats, jerseys, how much support is really around the city,” Leonard said during Media Day on Wednesday in Toronto. “Now in the Playoffs you get to see everybody outside the arena and seeing how excited they are for the game and how much support is there, too.

"It’s been an exciting year."

For years Raptors fans ached to be on a stage like this and to have their team, organization and city taken seriously.

Now they’re here.

"Yeah, it’s very different. And it’s exciting," said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. "Toronto has always been a favourite stop, a favourite city of mine and I think a lot of people in the NBA. It’s a great crowd. I think going way back before I was even coach of the Warriors, when I was doing TV the two arenas that I felt were just the most electric were Oracle and here.

“And you could tell that there was just kind of this organic love and energy and passion for basketball in both places, because neither team was that good, and yet the arenas were filled and there was so much excitement. And I think that the sense now that we have as a team is we can understand, we can feel how important this is to the whole country.

“So it’s a different vibe. It’s a different feeling. It’s exciting. It’s great for the game."

That’s the thing with Kerr and the Warriors though: They seem like nice guys and they play — nearly invented — this space-and-pace brand of basketball that can look like performance art when they are at their best, but they are completely okay with cutting the other team’s hearts out.

Not only are the Warriors gunning for their fourth title in five years — with most agreeing that if it weren’t for Draymond Green getting suspended for Game 5 while they were leading 3-1 over Cleveland, they could be gunning for five straight — they’ve laid waste to almost everything in their path.

They are 15-7 in the Finals and come into this series with a 12-4 mark in the playoffs. They are 5-0 since Kevin Durant strained his calf which kind of tempers any argument that the Warriors may be vulnerable if — as expected — Durant isn’t available for Games 1 and 2 at Scotiabank Arena.

With Durant out, Stephen Curry — the Warriors’ other former MVP — has shifted gears and is averaging 35.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists and shooting 41.7 per cent from three on 14.4 attempts a game. Fellow ‘Splash Brother’ Klay Thompson is often overlooked but has averaged 41 per cent from three over his 118-game playoff career.

The moment the Warriors dynasty almost wasn’t came when they were down against the Oklahoma City Thunder 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals in 2016 and Thompson hit 11 threes — six in the pivotal fourth quarter — to tie the series 3-3 on the road, allowing the Warriors to go back to Oracle Arena and win at home. Raptors forward Serge Ibaka played for the Thunder then, and calls it the worst loss of his career.

Kerr said that Green — five-times an All-NBA defender and a lethal playmaker from his power-forward or small-ball centre spot — is playing as well as he has ever played for the Warriors.

It takes a remarkable team to be down the defending two-time Finals MVP in Durant and still be a heavy favourite, but while most teams strive to have good depth, the Warriors have depth at superstar.

The Raptors have their hands full.

"It’s what it’s all about," said Danny Green, one of three Raptors with a championship ring and four with Finals experience. "Obviously, you want them to be healthy because you want to play against a 100-per cent team, a championship team. These are the moments that I look forward to, playing against the best, guarding those guys. This is as good as it gets."

So the Raptors — and perhaps their fans — have to find a way to toggle back and forth between having an appreciation for where they are and what they are up against, and finding a way to land a knockout blow that the Warriors have easily avoided so far, having gone 18-1 in their last 19 playoff series.

Leonard’s mantra is ‘enjoy the moment’ but the Warriors are experts at making their own fun at their opponent’s expense.

"I think that we all just have a collective understanding of how hard it is to get here," said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet whose three-point heroics against Milwaukee — he finished the series on a 14-of-17 heater from deep — may have won the Raptors the series.

"[Kawhi] and Danny [Green] had a chance to get here before, and then struggled to get back a little bit,” VanVleet continued. “It’s not easy. You don’t want to take it for granted. Serge [Ibaka] went seven, eight years ago and this is his first time back. Kyle has been in the league 13 years; this is his first time. So just have to enjoy the moment.

“I think that we’re all trying to do a good job of just relishing it, not taking anything for granted, staying focused on the task at hand, trying to complete our journey."

There’s no point in pretending they’ve been here before. The excitement around the team, fanning across the country is because they’ve never been here before. They just have to figure out how to function in a new environment with the world watching against one of the best teams that’s ever played.

"I think for me I mean it’s just obviously you want to say so much that it’s going to be a regular day, that it’s going to be, yeah, it’s just another day, but it’s just not another day. It’s the Finals," said Raptors forward Pascal Siakam. "It’s an exciting time of the year. I think all the eyes, everyone is watching. I mean, it’s an important moment."

For the Raptors and their fans, it’s all they could ever want.

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