As the game ended – Toronto’s first playoff win in six years – confetti began to rain down on the Air Canada Centre court.
A bit much? Sure.
But these are Raptors fans. They’d bring air horns to a wake.
The players were high-fiving each other down the tunnel, but the eye was drawn to Drake, standing around looking lost. He’s used to being the centre of attention here. Now he’s just one more bearded lady in the circus.
Tuesday’s 100-95 victory ties this series at one game each. It resumes in Brooklyn on Friday.
This is more than results, though. Toronto basketball is having a fairly delirious moment.
The first hint was the arrival of NBA superfan Jimmy Goldstein. Goldstein is an unmistakable fixture around the league – a fantastically rich weirdo marked by his penchant for leather. There are cows that wear less leather than Jimmy Goldstein.
He’d never come to Toronto before. Now he’s swanning around pre-game like he owns the place.
If we’d hoped to stay outside the city limits of Crazy Town, that idea vanished early. Also, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was in the crowd. In Section 318. Fifteen or so rows up. Which is about a half-dozen rows from sitting on the ACC roof.
There was a varying amount of excitement from the team on that score.
“I hope Rob Ford’s got my jersey on,” said DeMar DeRozan. Joking. Possibly. Also: mercifully wrong.
Apprised of the imminence, Amir Johnson said, “You say Tom Ford or Rob Ford?” The disappointment was palpable.
“Yes, I know who he is,” Chuck Hayes said, so flatly the statement was nearly two-dimensional. End of interview.
When Ford was finally shown on the big screen, the result was an aural soup of boos and cheers that sounded like a dog being played like a squeezebox.
This was also a win for Ford. His presence has been a home-field curse at recent events. Maybe they’ll let him sing the anthem at Game 5.
How has the atmosphere changed, Raptors coach Dwane Casey was asked beforehand.
“I don’t even think about who’s sitting in the stands, who’s sitting next to me. Drake’s over there yelling at the referees. I hear him, but I don’t see him.”
Good thing, that. Midway through a wild swing in the first quarter, Casey was therefore not seeing Drake as the pop star furiously lint-rolled his pants at courtside. No. Really.
Sadly, his close attention to the on-court product would have been rewarded.
The crowd was baying in the minutes beforehand. They’d been wound up Saturday by GM Masai Ujiri’s salty challenge to Brooklyn. In the intervening days, questions about the officiating pushed people in the direction of paranoia. The whole thing was taking on a wonderfully angry edge.
Now the only thing the team had to do was play. Instead, they once again stumbled into the spotlight blinking.
Three minutes in, they were down 8-1. Casey called a timeout. Whatever he said ought to be carved on a wall at the ACC.
From that point on, they occasionally waffled, but they were on task. Using an unusually short bench and leaning on spare-part Landry Fields to activate the defence, Toronto finally found its footing.
Turnovers continue to be a huge issue. Toronto had 20 vs. Brooklyn’s 10, and often played as if the ball was greased. Only their rebounding offset that advantage.
Still, as it neared the end, you could feel it slipping away. So could the crowd. They shrieked at every call. The players began to absorb that sense of grievance. With seven minutes remaining, DeRozan took his fifth personal. For a moment, he refused to come off the court. When his teammates took a subsequent timeout, he sat on the bench with his head in his hands rather than join the huddle.
That was the first moment of reckoning. He returned and took over. DeRozan scored 10 of his 30 points in the final three minutes.
The other key moment was a Paul Pierce three-point attempt with 13 seconds remaining. Bad switches resulted in an open look for the most dangerous late-game performer of his generation. That would’ve made it a one-point game.
“I can’t say what I want to say,” Casey said afterward of his thoughts as Pierce released that ball. But this time, he folded. The ball rimmed out. The crowd reacted as if they’d just seen a man ride a donkey into Jerusalem. It’s the same principle.
One Pierce miss makes this a series. Now the animus gets carried forward.
“I don’t know if you can say ‘[Expletive] Brooklyn’ and come to Brooklyn, so we’ll see what it’s like,” Nets agitator Kevin Garnett said afterward.
Sure, you can. You can do anything you like if you’re winning.