This time, they made the shot. This time, in Game 7 against Philadelphia, the shot went down. Other side of the floor, 18 years later, the toughest shot you could ask for. This time, Kawhi Leonard took it, and it dropped.
All night you were asking, who were the Toronto Raptors? Could you trust them, and could they trust each other? Put under enough pressure, not fully formed, would they splinter? Or were they, under pressure, a team?
And in a tough game they pulled themselves back, and exchanged punches, and it came down to the very end. Kyle Lowry turned the tide, and Kawhi Leonard brought it home with the biggest shot in franchise history. In Game 7, the Raptors won 92-90 over the 76ers. Toronto will play Milwaukee in the conference final starting Wednesday night.
It was a struggle. It was stressful. Down one late, the Raptors forced consecutive shot-clock violations; each was a defensive master class. After Leonard hit a long jumper over the giant Joel Embiid for a two-point lead, they nearly did it again, except Lowry stole a ball and found Pascal Siakam for a four-point lead. Defence is effort, poise, will. That, the Raptors had.
But with 10.8 seconds left Kawhi missed a free throw, and the Sixers drove the length of the court to tie it, so Toronto had 4.2 seconds left and the ball to win, or go to overtime.
Midway through the third quarter, with Philadelphia taking control of the game, he had been 8-for-25 and missing. He wasn’t drawing bodies and finding teammates. He wasn’t trusting the pass. No, he was bulling his way to spots, and firing away. Philly was on a 16-0 run.
But Lowry makes plays. One offensive rebound, two, an assist to an open Leonard. A drive to the basket. A steal and a behind-the-back assist to Ibaka, who had a huge game, huge. Tough night, big pressure, season slipping, and he had sprained his left thumb. But Lowry is a baller. He was here to save them, or try.
After all the adjustments, all the matchups, all the lineup decisions, and it came down to the best guys, in a difficult game, under all the pressure, trying to beat the best guys. That was all. Before the game, Sixers coach Brett Brown offered some basketball wisdom, gleaned from his championship-winning and losing years in San Antonio. He said, “There’s always a point, especially in these games, that it is a defining moment. How do you react if you’re the one that’s on a 12-0 run, and how do you react if you’re the one that isn’t on the run? That’s a thing that interests me the most in regard to a team. It’s still is about the fabric of a team, and the character of a team, and the togetherness of a team to withstand or push forward.”
That was always the question: the fabric of this team, the trust, how a rookie coach could pull it together while dealing with load management, injuries, and everything else. In the great games, it’s about who can make the play with the pressure weighing down, with everything on the line. Everyone found out.
Rightly or wrongly, no Raptors game had ever felt like more might be riding on it. Team president Masai Ujiri blew up his comfortable upper-middle class playoff failures to take a swing at the superstar he had been waiting for. He had been waiting for years, because players like Kawhi Leonard are the rarest currency, the treasure you can almost never buy. Finally, Ujiri did it. He burned his bridge with the most beloved Raptor ever, by some measures, and the coach of the year, and he aimed higher. They all did.
And now they will play Milwaukee for the right to play for a championship. In Kawhi’s introductory press conference he was asked what he wanted out of his career, of his life, and he said, “Just being able to be healthy. That’s my No. 1 goal. Have a long-term career. To be able to be dominant wherever I land, and that’s about it. I want to win championships, and get in those record books.”
He was healthy here, and Kawhi and Raptors director of sports science Alex McKechnie worked together all year; McKechnie is considered elite, and he showed it. The Raptors can offer Kawhi an extra guaranteed year, towards that long career. He was dominant here, even while treating his 60 regular-season games like preparation and practice, and it paid off with his post-season.
And now they are four wins from an NBA final, despite the struggles of the series, despite Embiid, despite their own inability to always coalesce. The Raptors are still learning each other, still finding their shared purpose. They are still figuring out what they can truly trust.
But Game 7 is over, and in the toughest game of the season — the toughest game, for some of them, of their basketball lives — the Raptors won. Milwaukee will be difficult; playing every two days, starting Wednesday, will be difficult. This is not a young team, and the rotation will have to be extended to beat the Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the last guy left who might be better than Kawhi in the East. Might.
But Toronto, in the biggest season in the franchise’s history, beat Philadelphia in a Game 7, 18 years after Vince Carter’s big miss. This time, they found out they had enough. Call it graduation day.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur