You know you’ve made it when the commissioner of America’s coolest sports league feels the need to come north and bend the knee.
Calling it “a homecoming of sorts,” NBA boss Adam Silver opened the league Finals in Toronto on Thursday evening. He got a few things right (dropping the second ‘t’ in Toronto) and a few things just a little wrong (the first NBA game being played in “Maple Leafs Garden” (sic)).
But what struck you was the tone of reverence – “(The game) has come full circle in terms of basketball being invented by a Canadian.”
Though the team’s been around for a quarter century, the Raptors only just arrived on Thursday.
Then they went out and won. Toronto comprehensively beat defending champions Golden State 118-109. In so doing, they broke a script so traditional it had become nearly scripture – the Warriors don’t go down early.
During their recent run of near complete dominance, the Warriors had never lost Game 1 of an NBA finals. This was the first time they’d lost any sort of post-season Game 1 in three years.
“We got to play better if we’re going to beat them,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said afterward. Then he tetchily deflected another question about when Kevin Durant will be healthy enough to play. This was a very different sort of press conference than the ones Kerr is used to.
For once, Kawhi Leonard didn’t need to be Toronto’s Superman. For one night, he got to be Robin to a bunch of Batmans.
Kyle Lowry had the best 7-point night in Finals history. Marc Gasol planted huge shots. Danny Green finally showed up. Fred VanVleet carried over his fine play from the Milwaukee series.
But the star on the evening was 25-year-old Pascal Siakam. He put in 32 points on a preposterously efficient 14-for-17 shooting.
A few years ago, Siakam was a Cameroonian kid with a lot of physical potential and very little by way of NBA-level skills.
Toronto coach Nick Nurse recalled how a couple of years ago – after an early playoff ouster for the Raptors – Siakam asked about coaches learning to shoot. He’d noticed it was a prerequisite to being on the court in the post-season.
Siakam went out the next day and started doing it. Now he’s putting those shots over the best players in the world when it counts most.
“It just proves that if you put the work in …” Siakam said. “It’s so cliché, but it’s the story of my life.”
It was a night full of remarkable firsts. First finals played outside the U.S.A. First win in Canada. First time the notoriously late-arriving Toronto crowd have all been in their seats for the national anthems.
Those didn’t go so well. Performed by The Tenors, ‘O Canada’ was presented as something between a Christmas carol and a car jingle. But the crowd was kind enough to drown them out during the important bits.
The mood in the room might best be described as ‘non-narcotically geeked out’. There were points at the outset where the well-heeled audience (they’d have to be to afford these tickets) were as loud as any Raptors crowd has ever been.
Loudest of all may have been Drake. Last week, Toronto’s head cheerleader was warned by the NBA not to involve himself too much in live play.
“(We) had conversations directly with Drake and his manager and I think we ended up in a good place,” Silver said.
Drake showed up in the Raptors’ throwback jersey of Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry’s dad, Dell. He did this knowing Dell Curry would be in the building. Then Drake began animatedly chirping Curry and everyone else in blue before the tipoff.
By the end, he was jawing nose-to-nose with the Warriors’ loosest cannon, Draymond Green, as Golden State left the court.
Perhaps the term “good place” doesn’t translate so well over the 49th.
Like their fans, the Raptors were a little keyed up to begin with. The first offensive sequence saw Kyle Lowry football tossing a pass out of bounds. Then Danny Green – who’s been an errant shooter the entire post-season – missed one. When the Raptors finally tallied their first points – more history – the room erupted like it was a game-winner.
Toronto got a nice run of play going early while the Warriors dithered around. That’s when things started to get quieter. The better the Raptors played, the bigger the lead, the tighter the crowd became.
A team used to chasing was out in front of what is likely the best team ever. At the half, Toronto had built up a 10-point lead. There were a dozen points at which they might have given it up. That’s what the Warriors do – lurk and then leap. The lead was briefly surrendered. But Toronto kept coming in the fourth. Crucially, the defence never lost focus for more than a single sequence. Golden State never did find its famous rhythm.
But it is in the nature of basketball that very little is decided until the end. And that’s potentially still two weeks off.
During their remarkable five-year run through the NBA, this was only the second playoff series the Warriors had started on the road. At points, they seemed completely out of sorts. Just like everyone else in town.
As amped as it was inside, the pre-game excitement outside the Scotiabank Arena was closer to frenzy. The last time Toronto found itself in this sort of position – during the World Series in 1993 – there was no 24-hour sports news cycle, no social media and no sense that it would so long before something like it happened again.
People began lining to get into the fan zone viewing area before sunrise.
By early afternoon – the game started at 9 p.m. – the line-up wrapped around the block. An ESPN producer asking for a long camera shot of the gathering warned a colleague, “Just FYI, there is a lot of weed going on out there.”
Another finals first.
With the opening pomp and nerves out of the way, the actual basketball takes over from here. Warriors coach Steve Kerr is expecting “probably a long series.” It was a gesture of respect when he said it before the game. It’s a reality now.
But the first one’s in the books. Canada is fully on the basketball map. All that’s left is to see exactly how big a mark the country leaves.