When the Raptors received the ball for the final possession in Game 5, with the opportunity to win the series and their first championship in franchise history, I fully expected them to pull it off. This playoff run and been full of serendipitous moments for Toronto, most notably Kawhi’s series-winning four-bounce shot against the 76ers, making them seem not only like a feel-good story, but a team of destiny. When Kawhi started dribbling, isolated on Klay Thompson, with just a handful of moments left in the game, I felt sure I was about to witness a moment that would instantly become iconic, one of the greatest finishes in Finals history. I was wrong, of course, but that belief attests to how far the Raptors have come in the past year — not merely in terms of on-court achievement, but also in how they are perceived.
It’s a marked contrast to last season, when they looked not like a team of destiny, but a team cursed by fate to always crumble in the moments that mattered most. They were infamously done in by LeBron James’ Cavaliers year after year, losing ten consecutive games to them in the playoffs from 2016 to 2018, including an ignominious second-round sweep in 2018 when the Raptors were the top seed. Sure, the players played worse which was a simple enough way to explain their failure, but what was harder to explain was why they so consistently seemed to crumble under the pressure, performing below their capabilities year after year. There’s no real shame to losing to a juggernaut, but there is some shame in losing to them so consistently and so meekly.
Things are different for Toronto now. With Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors have a proven champion who has given the team with a sense of confidence that they all eagerly follow. There is also Marc Gasol — a longtime Grizzlies veteran who, while never having won a championship, is battle-tested and not quick to back down from any opponent — also leading the way by example. And while many of the principal players from previous teams remain, they too appear emboldened, as if shown a secret they had no access to in years past. All throughout these playoffs, the contrast has been evident. They have not folded in big games or given up on series in which they have fallen perilously behind, impressing fans again and again with not just their ability, but their fortitude.
Tonight was no exception. Despite battling a double-digit deficit for most of the evening, the Raptors battled back again and again, matching every Golden State run with one of their own. All night, despite the Warriors shooting lights out, behind exceptional games from both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, who went a combined 12-of-27 from deep, the Raptors stayed close enough to pull out a victory, with it all coming down to one final possession.
Game 5 did not end how the Raptors would have liked, with Lowry’s shot blocked by Draymond Green rather than swishing through the net for a championship as time expired. However, with two games left to clinch the title, and with a deciding Game 7 potentially being played in Toronto, they remain the favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the coming days. It’s not likely that the Warriors shoot nearly 50 percent from 3 again, after all. In previous years, it might be a concern that a game such as this, in which the Raptors played quite well even in a losing effort, would be wasted. This year, though, there’s no reason to doubt they could do it again. Sometimes the issue is not necessarily possessing the ability to compete with the best, but believing that you do.