Flags fly forever, but title seasons end. On Tuesday night the Toronto Raptors opened a new year, and the last one ended. When the Raptors won the NBA title they were in Oakland, spraying champagne in the battered old visitors’ locker room. When this season started, they got to celebrate at home.
It was the closing of one hell of a book. Before the game the crowd was in their seats and the lights went out and they played “The Champ is Here,” and suddenly the trophy was illuminated, all alone, shining.
And as the video played the people in the building — the crowd, the team, everyone — for a few moments they lived it again. The crowd cheered Kawhi Leonard’s shot in Game 7 again; they cheered the Game 6 surge, and win, against Milwaukee. They cheered Fred VanVleet’s bandaged scream in Game 6 of the Finals, and they cheered the title. They cheered especially loud for Wayne Embry, and Alex McKechnie, and Nick Nurse, and especially Masai Ujiri, and when he was introduced the team president turned back to his team and howled again, arms in the air. The crowd chanted M-V-P, and they were right.
Then came the players. Norm Powell and Serge Ibaka danced to get their oversized, diamond planetoid rings. VanVleet strode at his own pace, too cool. Marc Gasol ambled over, elated; Pascal Siakam kissed his hand and pointed to the sky, for his late father.
And Kyle Lowry took his steps slowly, an impish grin on his face, as if he had been waiting a long time for this moment.
Lowry thanked the crowd, gathered his teammates around him, got the crowd to count it down, and they unveiled the banner, black and red and white and gold. When it emerged that Alameda County would not file charges against Ujiri for his on-court altercation with a sheriff’s deputy after Game 6 in Oakland —the deputy tried to keep Ujiri from taking the court for the celebration — the championship season was truly, finally, over.
Which meant they had to play a game, with new gold championship tabs on the back of every Raptors jersey, for as long as the franchise lasts. The Raptors won, 130-122, in overtime. It took a lot.
Kawhi will always hang over this team, because he’s the one who really got away. Had he returned this whole season would be a rolling, swaggering statement of defence, with the confidence of champions. As Ibaka told Masai Ujiri after the championship in June, they could have gotten two more. No guarantees, but especially in the flattened post-Warriors league, he wasn’t wrong.
And that’s what Toronto has been robbed of, and what these Raptors have been robbed of. The low-key NBA chatter that Kawhi isn’t completely happy in L.A. yet — that even the stoic Leonard didn’t expect to be booed at a Rams game, that the team without the injured Paul George isn’t quite inspiring yet, that the Clippers organization isn’t as easy a fit as the Raptors were, yet — is probably small consolation.
Kawhi was cheered when the Clippers visited Vancouver in pre-season, and told reporters that Canadians kept thanking him in the summer for what he had done: ”They’re very nice people,” he said. He might win a title with the Clippers. They won’t get three million at the parade, though.
But that’s all over and done, and what’s left is a team whose top seven players know one another’s rhythms and instincts, but aren’t in championship form yet, at either end. Who could be? It’s clear that Siakam is going to pile up numbers this season; he went for a cartoon statline of 34 points, 18 rebounds, five assists, and a sixth foul late: All in all, he played a ragged genius sort of game. The buzz that VanVleet was scoring almost at will against teammates in camp looked correct, as he carried that ring ceremony cool onto the court. He was, so often, in control.
It all counts, because the Raptors played seven-and-a-half guys in this game, and one injury to the wrong guy could send this sideways. There’s plenty of road left, one game at a time.
As the Raptors played, many of their names hung in the rafters, etched around the red edge of the championship banner, and the memories should live there, too:
Lowry, who played through his mangled thumb and defined the start of Game 6 of the Finals; VanVleet, who survived the size of Philadelphia and some actual self-doubt to become a stone-cold killer in the biggest moments; Gasol, who fit in to win a title and Ibaka, each of then with moments of propulsive genius in the playoffs; Powell, who wasn’t ever scared; and Siakam, who ran the toughest defensive gauntlet in modern NBA playoff history — Jonathan Isaac, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green — and hit the last critical shot of the season, under all the pressure in the world.
And of course, Leonard’s name is up there too. Kawhi carried the Raptors plenty in the playoffs. But sometimes they carried him, too, and it should all be remembered, all the parts. It may mean nothing going forward, as this crazy league lurches and spins and clatters into a future that never stands still. But they earned the celebration of this night.
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“I feel so thankful for this moment, you know?” Ibaka said the other day. “What I learned about this team is, we still good, man. Like, we still good. People sleeping on us, man. We got players. We got players who can play, who got experience now. After the NBA Finals, everybody got toughness, mental toughness. We know how it is to win games, we know how to play together. And we don’t give up. We good, man.”
Maybe. But now they have to earn everything again, because the championship season is over. Remember it well. Hell of a run.