It took more than a few moments to sink in.
Wait, what are we watching?
In a vacuum, last night’s 113-93 victory in Golden State was an extremely well-played game from the Raptors against a top-tier opponent. That happens, and there have been plenty games like that in Raptors history, to little or no real consequence.
But in the context of this season, Wednesday’s win felt like something more. A lot more.
It was, in a word, stunning. The Raptors, anchored by Kyle Lowry, got out to an early lead on the Golden State Warriors and never relented. With all Raptors starters — playing without Kawhi Leonard for the second-straight game — scoring in double-figures and a strong outing from the bench, each time Kevin Durant & Co. looked like they were mounting a comeback, the Raptors kept their foot firmly pressed to the gas pedal and never relented.
We know this Raptors team is good. After all, they have the NBA’s best record and entered Wednesday night’s game with an 11-3 road record — by far tops in the league. But Wednesday seemed like more than another win. It seemed like the realization of what, exactly, this Raptors team is accomplishing this season.
And it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
Raptorland has been a mostly bleak place where even the brightest, most enlightening moments have always seemed to be offset by a relatively swift thud back to earth: Beating Michael Jordan and the Bulls in ’96, only to finish the season with the worst record in the East; The heights of Vinsanity followed by Vince Carter’s ugly exit and one of the most lopsided trades of all-time; Chris Bosh’s rise to perennial all-star and free agency departure with no real compensation; the DeMar DeRozan era culminating in a first-ever conference finals appearance and the top seed in the East, only to be swept in back-to-back playoffs and have a beloved core promptly severed.
Will this moment, this undeniably potent high, end like the others? Who’s to say. But things have never been better for the Raptors than they are right now. As Kevin Durant said following the Warriors second loss to Toronto in as many tries: “They aren’t an up-and-coming team. They are here.”
While that may have already been true, last night offered the biggest reminder yet. Wednesday’s blowout road win was the ‘pinch me’ moment of the season.
On the second night of a back-to-back, the Raptors posted their second consecutive impressive win against top-flight Western conference competition, having beaten the Los Angeles Clippers by 24 points the night before.
Unlike the Raptors’ home win versus Golden State a couple weeks back, in which Leonard dropped a season-high 37 and Durant scored 51 for an undermanned Warriors squad, this time the champs were at full-strength with Steph Curry and Draymond Green back in the lineup. And this time, it was the Raptors who were undermanned, without Leonard for the second straight game as he nurses a bruised right hip. The team extended its record to 7-1 without their best player in the lineup.
The Raptors are a team playing for more than pride and wins. There is surely more than a little extra motivation among the players at the moment. They are a team playing for their coach following the passing of Nick Nurse’s mother earlier this week. Nurse left the arena following the final buzzer and boarded a plane to visit with his family in his hometown of Carroll, Iowa and will rejoin the club ahead of Friday’s game in Portland.
Sure, the Raptors also benefited from an off-night from the Warriors’ superstar shooters — Klay Thompson and Curry shot a combined 2-13 from deep and missed many momentum-swinging attempts they normally make — much like the Milwaukee Bucks caught a break courtesy a rare scoreless night from Lowry in their win on Sunday. For the most part you only go as far as your stars will take you on any given night in the NBA.
Yet for the Raptors it’s the ‘other guys’ that have helped separate them from the pack this season. Of course there’s no overvaluing how much influence a good Lowry performance has can have on the team’s success, but when the rest of the team is on like they were on Wednesday it’s like cranking a Marshall stack to eleven.
Of all his improvements, Pascal Siakam’s biggest virtue is that he’s now a consistent contributor. Danny Green has been an absolute steal, leading the NBA in plus-minus by a healthy margin and bringing a level of authority to the team that has been missing in recent years. Serge Ibaka has been flat-out fantastic and looks like a whole new player; Fred VanVleet is a game changer and stepped up starting in place of Leonard; Delon Wright is starting to regain his form; OG Anunoby continues to ooze potential and is a problem when he’s looking to attack the rim; Jonas Valanciunas is playing the best ball of his career and has largely been too much for opponents to handle.
“They have a little bit of everything,” Curry said of the Raptors on Wednesday. At the moment it’s more than just a ‘little bit.’
The one downside to Wednesday’s victory was, of course, the Valanciunas injury. He was karate chopped by Draymond Green on a post-up and his shooting hand took the brunt of the blow, dislocating his thumb in the process. The diagnosis could have been worse for a player with a history of hand injuries, but, the Raptors depth being what it is — a weapon— means more minutes for Greg Monroe, who showed last night that his talents belie his benchwarmer status when this roster is at full strength.
The win, as you’ve likely read by now, snapped a 14-year losing streak on the road versus the Warriors. More significantly, the Raptors have swept the regular season series. What does that mean? Obviously, there’s the confidence in sweeping the two-time defending champions, but it also means Toronto secured the home-court advantage tiebreak in a hypothetical Finals matchup between these two teams.
In the process of their most impressive victory in a season that has already included several, was a realization of not only how well the Raptors have played to start the season — a league-best 23-7 record —but how good they could be.
“We expect to win. We’re a great team,” VanVleet stated following last night’s game. “We feel like we’re one of the top teams in the NBA for a reason.”
Make no mistake: The Raptors are the class of the NBA and, right now, they have no real contemporary. It’s a sentence that could never have been written at any other point in franchise history. So, read it again, and enjoy the moment.