When the victory was in hand, Kyle Lowry blissfully thrust his arms in the air at long last, after seven years wearing that jersey. Then he hugged his teammates, slipped on an Eastern Conference Champions hat, and joyously scooped his two sons into his arms.
Red confetti fell from the ceiling, fireworks popped, and players’ families spilled onto the Scotiabank Arena floor in a scene this franchise has never before been able to enjoy. They pulled on T-shirts that read “Ran The East” and threw their arms around one another for a team photo for the ages.
Believe it. In their 24th season, the Toronto Raptors are making their first trip to the NBA Finals.
Kawhi Leonard – acquired to spearhead this momentous journey – had a sensational 27 points, 17 rebounds, and seven assists in the new biggest victory in franchise history on Saturday. He and the Raptors bounced back from a 15-point deficit and beat the Milwaukee Bucks 100-94 in Game 6 of the conference finals. It booked the club’s ticket to face the Golden State Warriors on the biggest stage of the NBA calendar.
Pascal Siakam gave Toronto 18 points, while Lowry had 17 with eight assists, and Fred Van Vleet added 14 points – including four three-pointers. Greek star Giannis Antetokounmpo had 21 points for the top-seeded Bucks.
It was a day to remember for sports fans across Canada. Tens of thousands of fans lined up on Toronto’s streets hoping to get into Jurassic Park, despite a thunderstorm rolling through the city. The line was so long that it snaked the perimeter of Scotiabank Arena and wound way down Front Street, even hours before game time. They hungered to see the big moment made in Toronto, not in a Game 7 on Monday in Milwaukee.
Inside, Drake sat courtside wearing a hoodie that read “Kawhi me a river”. Current and former Toronto athletes dotted the crowd, from Sebastian Giovinco to Bismack Biyombo, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Pinball Clemons.
However, despite the red-hot Raptors fever gripping the city, the team opened the game ice cold. They bumbled shots and turned the ball over, while the Bucks tormented them defensively, repeatedly forcing the Raps to use too much time on the shot clock. They shot just 31.6 percent and skidded into a 31-18 first-quarter hole.
This looked more like the Raps who had lost the first two games of this series, than the Raps who had just won the last three.
The second quarter had its rough moments too, but then it got a little better. Danny Green missed his fourth straight shot of the night and came out. The Raps suffered a shot clock violation.
The Raps were down by as much as 15 and chopped it down to within two points, with intense moments like a dunk by Serge Ibaka, some big drives to the rim by Siakam, and a trio of three-pointers by Van Vleet. But it was hard to remain within a basket, and the Bucks quickly rebuilt it. The Bucks had held Leonard to just eight points in the first half and the visitors owned a 50-44 lead at half-time.
Leonard opened with second half with a pair of pull-up jumpers and found Gasol for a corner three. The Bucks didn’t let the Raps get rolling though – they snuffed out that momentum by going on their own 8-0 run.
Lowry answered by hitting back-to-back threes. Leonard turned it up a gear too, exploding for a 12-point quarter while nabbing eight rebounds off the glass, drawing a couple of fouls and creating three scoring chances for teammates.
The Bucks suddenly had a very narrow 76-71 lead going into the final quarter
Just 90 seconds in to the third quarter, the Raps finally tied it up—and with Leonard on the bench for a breather – thanks to buckets by all three bench guys, Van Vleet, Ibaka and Powell. A Siakam finger-roll then gave Toronto its first lead since the first quarter. The Raps orchestrated a remarkable 19-2 run and seized control of this high-stakes contest.
Fans jeered for missed Antetokounpmo free throws. He and his Bucks seemed to briefly wither.
Lowry created a steal, then rather than laying it up, he dished it off to Leonard for perhaps the most poignant play of the game. The Raps superstar absorbed it in stride and turned it into a thunderous dunk that stirred the anxious Toronto faithful into ear-splitting hysteria.
“I wanted to let the big dog eat,” was how Lowry would later describe that play.
The Raps went up by six, and the fans could begin to imagine their team was minutes away from making history.
However, the Bucks would not die, lurching back to within one. The two teams kept stealing big moments -- a Gasol three, a Lopez lay-in, a Leonard three, a Hill put-back. Bodies were crashing. Both teams were desperate and frenetic.
In the final minute and holding a slim lead, Nick Nurse went with Lowry, Leonard, Van Vleet, Gasol and Siakam.
With a three-point lead in the final minute, Siakam had a chance to redeem himself for the two missed free throws he had in Game 3, which had a hand in sending that contest to double overtime. He hit one to give Toronto a four point lead, and missed the second. Leonard sailed in to grab his 17th rebound of the night.
Raps president Masai Ujiri, along with owner Larry Tanenbaum, received the conference trophy with the team. Ujiri, who had for months been second-guessed for decisions like firing Coach Dwane Casey and trading away DeMar DeRozan for just one guaranteed year of Leonard called his superstar the best player in the NBA.
After seven years as a Raptor, Lowry carried that conference trophy off the floor.
The work is not done. The Finals start in Toronto on Thursday.