As Raptors’ greatest era nears end, celebrate all it achieved

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, right, goes up for a shot against Boston Celtics centre Daniel Theis. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

In the loss there was consolation. The chance to remove themselves from life in a quarantine bubble, to have an existence beyond a hotel room, a practice floor and central Florida humidity.

The chance to go home.

“I get to go see my babies, man,” Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “I’ve been gone damn near three months without seeing my kids. I don’t want to be going home, I really don’t, and I know my kids don’t want me to be home, because they wanted their daddy to win a championship, but I get to go see my babies, man.”

In the minutes and hours after the Raptors’ COVID-19-extended reign as 2019 NBA champions finally came to an end, their thoughts drifted to the future.

Fred VanVleet, pragmatic as ever, mused about free agency. Pascal Siakam looked forward to figuring out what went so wrong for him in his first experience as a primary option on a team with championship aspirations. And Marc Gasol reflected on why so much of his game abandoned him when his team needed something — anything — to help them get over the hump against the Boston Celtics.

But the future brings change, and that means this team and this season — wondrous and messed up and unprecedented and delightful, all at once — is over and very likely not to be repeated.

“I’m thinking about it right now, I already miss this team. You know what I mean?,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who earned NBA Coach of the Year honours for leading a team that lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency and was beset by injuries all year long to a franchise-record winning percentage and the second-best record in the NBA.

“It was a hell of a two-year run with the core group of these guys but I didn’t think that at all here until the game ended,” Nurse said. “I wasn’t thinking about it being over at all. I was really planning on winning this series and getting ready for Miami [in the Eastern Conference Finals] tonight when I got back to the hotel. Now just thinking back again, a hell of a run for this team and some amazing moments and I think everyone should be really proud of them.”

They are. How can’t they be?

It didn’t end the way anyone was hoping. The Raptors took the final game of their second-round series against the Celtics to the final minute before falling, 92-87. They had the ball down three with 32 seconds to play and could only manage a late-clock three-point attempt from well-beyond the line by VanVleet that was blocked by Celtics rookie Grant Williams, whose arms might be as long as VanVleet is tall.

The play told the story. The Raptors shot 41.3 per cent from the floor for the game and just 8-of-28 from three — consistent with their series averages.

Boston wasn’t any better Friday night, at 40.7 per cent and 9-of-38 from deep, but they only had 10 turnovers to the Raptors’ 18, which led to 31 Boston points — the difference in the game.

The difference in the series is the Celtics received consistent performances from their key contributors — Tatum, a budding MVP candidate, and Jaylen Brown combined for 50 points while world-class irritant Marcus Smart chipped in with enough offence and plenty of key defensive plays, including a blocked shot on a fast-break layup attempt by Norman Powell with a minute to play that would have tied the score.

Lowry shined in the series even if it looked like the weight of his 53-minute Game 6 masterpiece might have slowed him in Game 7, when he was just 5-of-15 from the floor. And VanVleet held his own, leading the Raptors in Game 7 with 20 points. But Siakam shot 38 per cent for the series and 4-of-32 from three. His 13 points per game average was miles from the 22.9 points a game he led the Raptors with in the regular season as a first-time all-star. Gasol offered even less – he was minus-20 in 14 first-half minutes Friday.

Still, the Raptors were in it. They led after the first quarter, trailed by four at the half and were down one heading into the fourth.

At one point they were down by 10 with just under five minutes left, but managed to make it a one-possession game. When they needed an additional play or bucket, though, they had nowhere to turn.

“Well, I think you would always, I think that if you’re going to advance to this stage of the playoffs, you need all your guys firing, right?” Nurse said. “And I’m not saying they all gotta play out of their minds or anything, but they’ve gotta play at a level, right? And I just don’t think we had that, it was a little too sporadic, but again we kept finding it, we really needed Norman in Game 6 and there he was, we needed Gasol and there he was, we needed Kyle and there he was with a monster game, so I know it moves around a lot in the playoffs, and that was the big secret to our success last year. But, I think the bottom line is we didn’t play up to our capabilities, and that’s why we’re going home.”

Of course, in many ways the Raptors were fortunate to make it this far. When Leonard and Green left in free agency, those who didn’t know the team well thought even making the playoffs would be a challenge. And even after a remarkable regular season, there were fair questions about how Toronto’s “by committee” approach on offence would fare against elite playoff defences.

Not all that well, turns out. The Raptors needed a miracle bucket at the buzzer from OG Anunoby to avoid going down 3-0 and then an epic Game 6 double-overtime win to force another elimination game.

They were out of miracles in Game 7, and now it’s Boston that will go on to face Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Raptors can look forward to going home.

It’s not only the end of a season and the longest championship reign in NBA history — a record that might stand for a while — it quite possibly is the end of an era.

Every off-season brings change, but this one could bring more than most for a Raptors team that kept things together in order to defend its championship. Toronto’s hand might be forced this time around. Serge Ibaka, Gasol and VanVleet are free agents, while Lowry is heading into the final year of his contract — as is Nurse, his coaching staff and much of the front office, from president Masai Ujiri on down.

“I enjoyed this year. The emergence of Pascal, the emergence of Freddy. Just being around these guys, these young guys,” said Lowry, who looks as good as ever at the end of his 14th season and would be in sharp demand on the trade market if a shakeup comes. “…For me, being 14 years in, playing with these young guys, those guys pushing me to be better every single day, and those guys letting me lead them, that’s important for a guy like me. Fourteen years have gone by so fast, you want to cherish every moment … you miss out on these moments that you don’t win a championship. You miss out [on] an opportunity to keep continuing to play with these great f-ing guys.”

Not many Raptors seasons have ended like this, with disappointment but also a sense of gratitude.

You can almost stand back in wonder.

For most of the life of the Raptors franchise, the lows far out-weighed the highs. It was almost part of the charm. There was Vince Carter lifting the club into the stratosphere, but also years in the dregs on either side. Chris Bosh offered promise, but in the end his peak was short lived and never involved getting past the first round of the playoffs.

The Lowry-era Raptors have been completely different. The bulldog point guard has been the constant in seven years that were all almost better than anything that had been before and he led them to places that were unimaginable for fans who remember Vincenzo Esposito, 16-66 or Sam Mitchell incredulously reading off Jerome Moiso’s box score line (“Zero, zero, zero….”).

The team that drafted Rafael Araujo in the lottery instead of Andre Iguodala was suddenly finding VanVleet as an undrafted free agent and Siakam late in the first round. Instead of Toronto as a market and a franchise players wanted to avoid or escape, smart agents were steering their players there, believing “Raptors culture” would rub off on them and help them reach their potential.

Kevin Garnett and LeBron James were stunned at the playoff atmosphere inside Scotiabank Arena and U.S. networks couldn’t get enough of the crowd shots outside of it. Chants of “We the North” rang out across the league as Raptors fans travelled like a joyful, loyal, noise-producing army, culminating in their takeover of Oracle Arena last June.

There were conference finals appearances, an NBA championship and this year’s more than credible run to repeat, even when almost no one gave them a chance.

The Raptors rank first in the NBA for regular season wins over the past seven years and have the Eastern Conference’s longest post-season streak.

There are no guarantees of major changes, but with so many loose ends, it won’t take much for things unravel.

Which is why while this season — the longest, strangest and most unlikely season in NBA history — might be over for the Raptors, it should be a time of celebration and recognition rather than mourning.

The Raptors have never had a true era before — a period multiple generations of fans will all agree were the golden years, the payoff for all that came before and the standard for all that comes next.

The stories will unite fans across generations and cultures in a time when the bonds that hold things together seem more tenuous than ever.

When in doubt about what sports can mean and how much people from different places and races crave to belong and be united, remember the happy, sweaty, disorganized chaos of the championship parade.

The Raptors did that. We should never let ourselves forget it.

So, if it’s really over, don’t cry, as the wise Dr. Seuss wrote.

Smile because it happened.

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