They showed up. In Game 7 against the Miami Heat, their season on the line for the second time in two weeks, the Toronto Raptors finally showed up.
I’m not just talking about the Raptors we got to know during the regular season, who put up a franchise-best 56 wins with tenacity and style. That team disappeared through the first 13 games of these playoffs — stifled by injuries and shooting woes — until suddenly reigniting when it mattered most: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan regained their All-Star form, DeMarre Carroll quieted Dwyane Wade, and Bismack Biyomo set the building alight with his boundless, infectious energy. At long last, Toronto played like the favourites they were supposed to be, crushing the Heat 116-89.
But I’m also talking about the Raptors of my childhood imagination, the squad I pictured while shooting hoops alone in my parents’ driveway in the sleepy suburbs of Toronto. In those blacktop fantasies, the Big Smoke wasn’t seen as a no man’s land by free agents wary of cold weather and extra taxes; local media and sports fans alike treated basketball with the same fervency they did hockey; and the mere sight of the club’s cartoony dinosaur logo didn’t inspire fits of laughter and derision from outsiders. The team I envisioned played with grit and heart, contended deep into the playoffs, and generally belonged among the league’s elite. Oh, and I was their starting point guard, of course.
For two decades, those Raptors remained a pipe dream. They flirted with relevancy in the Vince Carter era, sure, but it wasn’t long before Air Canada caught the first flight out of town in a flurry of bad press. Then came the lean years: Chris Bosh, a sidekick masquerading as a franchise player, and Andrea Bargnani, a pool noodle masquerading as a human being, putting up half-hearted double-doubles night after night in a half-empty arena. Long-suffering fans like me were left to cling to meaningless memories of the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest and that miraculous Mo Pete buzzer beater in DC.
By the time Masai Ujiri finally turned the team around in 2013 — and yeah, he got kind of lucky, but luck is something this franchise hasn’t had a whole lot of over the years — Torontonians were understandably skeptical. And even with the marketing brilliance of #WeTheNorth as a rallying cry, that skepticism won the day as the resurgent Raps crashed out in the first round of the playoffs two years running. The team finally had legitimate stars, a slightly less embarrassing logo, even its own Jack Nicholson in Drake — but it still hadn’t earned real respect.
Which is why, despite all the good Kyle Lowry and co. were able to muster this season — recording the team’s first 50-win season, good enough for second in the East; sending two players to Toronto’s first All-Star Game; and, notably, taking the season series over LeBron’s Cavaliers — none of it really mattered. The 6ix remained in wait-and-see mode until the postseason. And when it arrived, and the Raptors finally made it out of that first round, they did so in limping, uninspired fashion, barely hanging on in Game 7 against a one-dimensional Pacers side.
That’s what made last night so special. Racking up a 27-point lead in the fourth quarter, putting their foot down the Heat’s throat, signalled more than just the return of the Raptors’ regular season form. It was an exorcism, a declaration, a crossing of the Rubicon. For me, it kind of felt like Inception. The Toronto Raptors of my adolescent dreams — my spot in the starting lineup aside — walked through the door. They were dominant, clinical, elite. They showed up.
Whatever happens next, against the Cavs — and, despite what the pundits are saying, I think we’ve got a real shot — is just gravy at this point. For the first time ever, Toronto, we’ve got a real team to root for. And that’s already enough.