People started lining up to get into the outdoor fan zone outside Scotiabank Arena around noon on Saturday. By 5 o’clock, the line-up stretched around the enormous downtown block that holds the arena and Union Station. Thousands of people. Some time after 6pm, it began pouring rain. The game didn’t start for another couple of hours.
And you thought to yourself, ‘There are perfectly good bars that have seats, roofs and televisions. And they don’t make you line up. Who does this to themselves?’
As it turns out, people with a sense of occasion.
They were geographically proximate to the biggest win in Toronto Raptors history and, considering the stakes, possibly the most unlikely.
After beating the Milwaukee Bucks 100-94, the Raptors will face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals beginning on Thursday.
Or, as Kawhi Leonard refers to them, “the next team.” The man is so locked in, he honestly may not have known in the immediate aftermath what came next.
On paper, it’s impossible. Golden State is a monolith. They’ve been to the last five finals and only lost one.
But given how Toronto won this series, would you count them out? They give off that weird, just-find-a-way feeling that marks teams of destiny. Plus, they have Leonard.
During the post-game celebrations, Raptors president Masai Ujiri called him “the best player in the league.”
A month ago, that’s hyperbole. Right now, it can’t be argued with. Leonard is in the midst of what may be the end of the finest post-season performance in NBA history. All it requires now are the final few strokes of genius. He was not at his best on Saturday night. (Not at his best meaning 27 points, 17 rebounds and 7 assists – ho hum.)
Clearly, Leonard is hurt or physically limited in some way. He can’t take anyone off the dribble. But he continues to play lockdown defence, make impossible shots and generally roam around the half-court like Godzilla running amok.
As per the usual, Saturday’s game was a comeback from way down (15 points). Once again, it was Leonard who began it. Unusually, he was on the bench when the knife was being planted. During one remarkable stretch, the Raptors constructed an eight-minute, 26-3 run from the end of the third quarter into the middle of the fourth.
It is important to remember here that the Bucks were the best team by record in the NBA this year. They had the league’s number-one offence. They have league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. They’d lost one game in the post-season. And they had not lost three in a row all year.
Toronto spotted that sort of team a two-game lead and then broke them in a modified, four-game sweep. By the end, the Bucks were in disarray. They weren’t beaten physically (though that also happened). They were mentally manhandled. Leonard did that, with strong back-up from Kyle Lowry.
In the final seconds of the game, Lowry appeared close to tears on the court. Leonard’s expression was his usual – no expression. He didn’t even come close to smiling. Not even a little smirk. Presumably, he’ll go back to his happy-go-lucky self once he retires.
“It’s great,” Leonard said later.
What a sap.
Over these last couple of games, the Raptors have completely changed their post-season identity.
For years, they were the ones who folded. Now, they are the ones who fold you. At least in the very short term, no lead and no setback is going to seem too big to overcome. Because they’ve done it before.
For the city of Toronto, it’s already been a watershed of sorts.
On Saturday, really for the first time ever, you could feel the playoffs penetrating the bubble around the Scotiabank Arena and moving out into the wider city. Suddenly, everyone on the street was wearing team gear. People who are not fans of basketball were buying in. The crowd outside the arena was only the tip of the spear.
For once, the city’s enthusiastic bandwagonism has been handsomely rewarded. This is the first Toronto team to make the finals of a major league in 26 years. Most of the people who were in Jurassic Park on Saturday probably don’t remember it happening.
So there is some catching up to do.
It’s very hard to say how the next part goes. Leonard will have to play out of his mind, and a few others besides. Golden State may be without Kevin Durant, but that’s not a certainty. The next five days will be all phony war and skirmishes telegraphed through the media.
But the party that’s coming is a sure thing. You can’t say this city is at its best when its teams are winning. Because its teams don’t win. But one suspects that is the case. Now Toronto gets a chance to prove it.