TORONTO — The task for the Toronto Raptors in the 70-hour gap between their latest turbulent, emotional, exhausting game and the next one they’ll encounter Thursday is simply to overcome. Like, all of it. The loss. The emotion. The fatigue. The little piece of themselves they all left on that floor at Scotiabank Arena Monday.
It’s what came to Danny Green’s mind not long after Toronto’s 106-105 loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, when he was asked what, if anything, he’d relayed to his teammates in the immediate aftermath.
“Not to let this game drain us or defeat us,” he said. “There’s still a lot of basketball left — we have opportunities to still make some special things happen. We’ve just got to make it happen. We can’t just sit back and expect them to happen.”
That was certainly the feeling in Toronto Monday — maybe not from the players themselves, but from just about everyone in their orbit. Returning home after saying, in the words of Kawhi Leonard, “f–––– that” and taking two in Oakland, there was a discernible feeling of finality not only in the arena, but in the packed public squares outside of it, and the ones across the country, too.
Fans came out in droves, forming crowds unlike we’ve ever seen for a basketball game in this country — all of them expecting a great celebration. And as they should have. The Raptors were on the verge of winning the franchise’s first championship, and with wins in seven of their last eight, most of them awfully convincing, there was little reason for anyone to expect anything but the good times to roll on.
Especially so in the fourth quarter, as Leonard entered beast mode and did everything short of raising the damn banner himself, making eight of his team’s nine attempts during a bonkers stretch, and assisting on the other (not to mention the three rebounds and a block). The Raptors surged ahead by six with three minutes to play, and in the bowels of the arena, championship t-shirts and hats were being readied. Champagne was on ice.
The building was electric. At all those gatherings from coast to coast, from Halifax, to Regina, to Vancouver, anticipation grew. The masses were ready to erupt. And if you were watching — as somewhere around a third of the country was — you understand the severity of the let-down that ensued. A couple generational shooters do generational shooter things, and the Raptors can’t get a stop, and all those boxes of hats and shirts, all that champagne, has to go back into whatever storage locker it came out of.
“They kind of hung around. They made threes. We had that lead. Maybe a couple of stops and it’s a different game,” said Pascal Siakam. “We could’ve done a better job down the stretch. Credit to them.”
It’s difficult just to watch a team get that close to a championship only to lose by a point. You can’t imagine what it feels like to live it. It’s not only the fans that are let down. The players all have their closest family and friends in attendance, as well. All eager to take part in history — not only for a franchise, a city, and a country, but for themselves.
Celebrating a championship on your team’s home floor. Every one of those players has visualized it. And every one of them was ready to make one of the greatest memories of their lifetimes with the people they love the most. With three minutes to play, it looked almost foregone. And then, it all went away.
Green’s right, the Raptors can’t let this defeat them. But how could the weight of that game not carry over into the next one? It has to be draining on a truly deep level, doesn’t it?
“It could be. A lot went into it,” Green said. “Every game is like that, though. But, obviously, we had everybody here. All the fans are here. Everybody expecting us to win. But regardless of that, we have to make it happen and play basketball.”
“It’s an NBA Finals game — it’s a lot of emotions,” echoed Siakam, who resides at the opposite end of the NBA veteran spectrum from Green. “There’s a lot going on.”
An awful lot, like 20,000 fans singing the anthem, sending jolts of energy and emotion through the nerve endings of every last soul in the place. Like Kevin Durant going down, his right Achilles having given out under the stress he’d asked it to withstand, and the sheer anguish of watching him helped to the locker room, Steph Curry following closely behind with a hand on his back, while understanding the incredibly significant and far-reaching implications of such an unfortunate event.
Like DeMarcus Cousins coming off the bench in the second quarter, where he was likely going to remain for the rest of the game until Durant’s injury, and staging a mini-takeover, going on a personal 7-0 run over the course of fewer than 90 seconds. Like Leonard’s epic fourth-quarter run, which would have gone down as one of the greatest individual NBA Finals stretches in history if the game’s outcome were different.
Like the decisions Nick Nurse had to make in the game’s most critical moments, opting to take two use-it-or-lose-it timeouts with a little more than three minutes remaining, favouring the reward of getting his team a breather over the risk of sapping their momentum. And then, opting not to take a timeout to draw up a play at the end, with his team down one and attacking a set defence with 16 seconds to shoot.
Like Kyle Lowry with the ball in his hands in the corner, vaulting up with the clock’s final seconds expiring above the basket he aimed for. Like Draymond Green getting just enough of his right hand’s index and middle fingers on that ball, blocking Lowry’s buzzer-beating attempt with his finger prints. Like Bob Myers, Golden State’s general manager, swallowing tears at the podium as he announced Durant’s injury after all was said and done.
Like Siakam said, a lot going on. And that’s before the Raptors even consider losing such a crucial game by only a point. The only thing worse than the disappointment of the loss is going back and finding the innumerable little instances where it could’ve broken differently. The deficit was only a missed free throw, of which the Raptors had six. It’s only a foot on the line for one of Golden State’s 20 three-pointers. It’s Lowry getting that final shot off a split-second earlier. It’s a different bounce on the rim, a defender’s slip, a screen set a little less firm. It’s a billion little things.
It’s NBA Finals basketball, is what it is — played between two incredibly talented and tough teams. It’s intense, emotional, exhausting. But for the Raptors, who this morning head back west to do it all over again, it cannot be draining or defeating, like Green said. The challenge the Raptors will encounter Thursday in the final game played at Oracle Arena will be considerable and daunting. The Warriors are going to throw bombs. The Raptors will need to give everything. And they’ll need to overcome Monday if they’re to overcome what’s next.
“Just try to come out and match that emotion and that drive,” Leonard said, asked how his team needs to approach Game 6. “Come out and do the same thing — just be mentally focused, try to limit our mistakes, and be the aggressor. Just play hard for 48 minutes. And see what happens.”