Raptors still searching for their own Dwyane Wade heading into playoffs

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Toronto Raptors guard Danny Green (14) defends Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (3) during overtime in NBA basketball action. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors traded the closest thing the franchise has ever had to an icon.

Twice, when you think about it.

Vince Carter could have been all those things to Toronto — even Canada — if things had unfolded differently. But Carter was more like a comet across the sky than a guiding star even before he was traded way back in 2004.

DeMar DeRozan was closer to the real deal — an elite player who infused himself into every pore of the Raptors franchise over the course of his nine seasons with the club; a home-grown all-star who helped the team reach new heights and did it in a way any fanbase could embrace.

But missing were championships and the belief that DeRozan could lead a team to a title.

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Which is why Raptors president Masai Ujiri ultimately chose results over sentiment when he pulled the trigger on the franchise-shaking deal that brought Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Toronto from the San Antonio Spurs.

This means that, even as the Raptors approach their 25th season and are about to embark on their sixth-straight playoff appearance, they are still missing their version of Dwyane Wade — a single player who embodies all the good and almost none of the bad.

Keep in mind that means they are like most NBA teams. True franchise icons are rare across the league, players that check off every box in terms of longevity, excellence and star power. I can quickly think of four since the Raptors joined the NBA – Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Wade. You could argue LeBron James has that status in two markets – Cleveland and Miami.

It’s rare air, but Wade has been breathing it his entire career.

The Miami Heat star made his final visit to Toronto on Sunday afternoon, one more moment in a farewell tour for the 16-year, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer that has been both understated — he’s exchanged jerseys with select players throughout the league — yet meaningful. It was Leonard who was gifted with Wade’s jersey on Sunday in recognition of their battles in the NBA Finals when Leonard was with the Spurs.

“Being that young and having to guard Wade and LeBron, it got me to where I am today,” said Leonard. “Losing [in 2013] and then coming back and winning [in 2014] just helped me out, man. It’s like I told him before, me going through that and them being as great as they are just made me a better player.”

Wade has sparked fond memories at every turn.

“It’s been really cool to see how he’s been received in every single arena,” said Heat forward and Canadian national team veteran Kelly Olynyk, who is finishing up his second season with Wade. “There hasn’t been one arena where people didn’t care. Everywhere we went people took time out to pay their dues or show their respect and that’s because of what he’s on the court but also off the court. He’s an elite-level talent but also a first-class human being.”

Toronto fans did their part, giving Wade a warm ovation when he checked in midway through the first quarter, turning out in Wade’s No. 3 jerseys in big numbers.

The NBA is full of good people and dedicated athletes, but only a handful have been able to imprint themselves on a franchise like Wade, the No. 5 pick in the vaunted 2003 draft.

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Wade filled the bill on the floor. Over an eight-year period from 2005-06 to 2013-14, he won three NBA titles, appeared in four NBA Finals, was a Finals MVP and led the NBA in scoring once. He averaged 25 points 5.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists while grabbing 1.9 steals and averaging one blocked shot per game over that stretch — his ability to change the game defensively almost as deadly as his lightning-strike offence. In an era full of hot takes and fake drama, he did it without alienating anyone and somehow represented the best of both old-school values and a newer, hipper vibe.

He is a superstar for the people.

“My Grandma always instilled in us to treat people the way you want to be treated and for the most part, you get that back and if you don’t then those people don’t need to be in your life,” Wade said after the game. “That’s how I’ve been. If someone treats me a certain way or comes at me a certain way, then I have to come at them that way, but if you’re nice and treat me with respect, I’ll do the same thing.”

I’ve experienced it firsthand. In 2006 when Wade was breaking out as a superstar I had a small freelance assignment for a US publication to interview him on a topic I can’t remember. I tried unsuccessfully to arrange something through official channels and it didn’t work out at the formal game-day availabilities. Finally — a little desperate — I tried to speak with him after the game but was rebuffed as he’d already done a scrum.

But Wade must have sensed I was in a jam and offered to walk with me out to the team bus — not something that happens all the time. It was a small gesture, but deeply appreciated.

When the Raptors were playing the Heat in the playoffs in 2016 Wade lingered around the practice court in Miami after his standard media obligations were finished. He didn’t seem in any great rush so me and Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star kept asking questions. Wade kept answering them. We were there for 45 minutes. He couldn’t have been nicer or more down-to-earth.

Heat coach Eric Spoelstra was asked what Wade has meant to his career before taking his club to the floor for a must-win game.

“Everything,” he Spoelstra said. “I love Dwyane. I wish this could last longer. But all great things must come to an end, and I absolutely respect that he’s doing it on his own terms. I respect him for the Hall of Fame player that he is, but also because of who he is as a person, and as a father and husband and philanthropist. That’s why he transcends the game and has such a global following. It’s not just because he’s a talent on the court. He’s a guy that people can relate to, a role model your kids can aspire to act and behave like him. That might sum it up but I could go on forever about him.”

Even is his final season Wade remains a vital, vibrant force, albeit off the bench.

He is not limping to the finish line even though the Heat are touch-and-go to make the playoffs in what is supposed to be his final season.

He can still give a team what it needs. The Heat’s problem is they need too much.

As the Raptors out-lasted Miami 117-109 in overtime Sunday afternoon Wade was the Heat’s player still trying to work the game. He led Miami with 21 points, five assists and three rebounds in 33 minutes off the bench. While hardly an elite three-point shooter in his career Wade was four-of-six from deep against Toronto, his step-back corner three kept the Heat in touch midway through the extra frame.

A moment later he drove deep into the defence and fired a bullet past the collapsing defence to a wide-open James Johnson. Wade then rocketed to the rim in traffic and tapped Johnson’s miss straight back to Goran Dragic, who missed his three too. Wade then assisted on a Dion Waiters triple that was the Heat’s last gasp. He gave everything right to the end.

The loss was Miami’s fourth straight and dropped them to 1.5 games out of eight with two games to play. The math says the Heat may be done, and Wade too. What will very likely be his last home game will be Tuesday night.

“The people in that arena have watched me grow, make a lot of mistakes in life and watched me blossom and do amazing things and great things,” he said. ‘I’m grateful for it … it’s going to be emotional if my last drive from that arena means I’m not coming back to it.”

The Raptors can look ahead. The win was their sixth in their last seven games and improved their record to 57-24, the second-highest win total in franchise history. With one game left in the regular season, the Raptors seem primed for a long playoff run, although we’ve said that before.

They head to Minnesota for the season finale Tuesday healthy and playing a reasonably cohesive brand of basketball with hopes that the best is yet to come. Most significant? Leonard seems crisp – playing a Sunday noon start after playing a road game Friday was his tightest turnaround of the season given he sat out every back-to-back.

The conservative approach to managing his thigh issues seems to have worked. He finished with 22 points and four assists in 38 minutes. He got the ball out of his hands quickly late in the overtime period, saw it zing around the perimeter and find a wide-open Pascal Siakam who knocked down the corner three to put Toronto up seven with 39 seconds left and gave him 23 points to go along with 10 rebounds. Toronto also got 23 points from Norm Powell, who was a perfect 7-of-7 from the floor.

That Powell had such a big game against Wade made it even better. He modelled his game after Wade’s and remains a fan as much as a competitor.

“They always say father time will catch up to you, but it doesn’t look like that for him,” said Powell. “I think he’s still got two, three years in him. But looks like he wants to hang ‘em up and it’s great for him to be able to go out on his own terms. The reception he gets in the arenas is great.”

Still, the Raptors are still trying to have one season like the several Wade has experienced – playing deep into June, electrifying a city.

This may be their year and if it is, who knows? Maybe over time, Kyle Lowry will come to represent to Toronto what Wade means to the Heat. Maybe we are seeing the start of Pascal Siakam becoming that kind of figure. Leonard may win the ‘here for a good time, not a long time’ award.

It’s a tall order. Athletes like Wade are rare and need to be appreciated. Maybe one day the Raptors will have an icon like Wade to call their own, but if not a championship will have to do.

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