Kawhi Leonard celebrates after the Toronto Raptors defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in game seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals of the NBA playoffs. The team has had a standout season. (Jesse D Garrabrant/NBAE/AFP/Getty Images)
Every now and then a team comes along that demands to be recognised by the sporting public — even by those outside of its code. Think Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City or Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund.
This year it was the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA) who have arguably risen higher than any expectations. At every turn there has been a surprise — experienced most recently by the Golden State Warriors, who thought they would cruise to a third consecutive title.
The Raptors have had no shortage of drama in their standout season. In the second round of the playoffs, against the Philadelphia 76ers, this drama presented itself in the most fantastical of ways.
It took every second of the seven games to separate the two teams. When four seconds remained on the clock, Kawhi Leonard produced a moment that has defined the season; a moment that will represent him no matter what else he achieves in his career.
Collecting the ball off a free throw, with the game tied at 90-90, Leonard was forced wide along the arc by two defenders. He managed to eye a clearing and released his jumper just in time. The ball bounced on the near side of the rim, bounced on the other side, then again, and again, suspended in time long after the buzzer had gone. After four agonising plops it dropped into the hoop with the most satisfying of falls.
It was the kind of story a producer would tear up, thinking his script writer got a bit too comfortable with the bottle the previous night.
Having just scraped into the Eastern Conference on the back of this magic moment, the Raptors were firm underdogs going into the next game against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo had dominated the narrative until this point. This was his fairy tale and Toronto were just a stepping stone to what would be the real test against the Golden State Warriors.
So it was for the first two games … after which Leonard and his cohort made a mockery of the Bucks’s “favourites” tag. As a team the Raptors swarmed Antetokounmpo, strangling him out of any chance to distribute his considerable possession intelligently.
At the other end there was no player, starter or otherwise, that didn’t step up. Everybody put in the work, keeping the scoreboard perpetually grinding upwards. (Incidentally, this was all happening while Toronto native Drake was playing the over–passionate fan on the sideline, chirping the enemy and giving his coach a shoulder rub.)
Still, all the cohesion in the world couldn’t stop Leonard from distinguishing himself. Playing in some pain — he would wince and hobble after every dunk — “The Klaw”
forced himself into every defensive effort and was at the head of all attacks.
If you’ve never watched Leonard in action the best non-basketball analogy would probably be Manchester United legend Eric Cantona. Think of his methodical rhythm; the way he seems to have visualised the outcome before he executes it.
Leonard’s calculating persona extends to every aspect of his game: he’s famed for rarely expressing emotion. The buzzer beater against the 76ers is one of the few times he has allowed himself to get lost in elation.
The Raptors are, of course, so much more than Leonard. Their first appearance in the NBA finals stands on the shoulders of much heartache and many “nearly theres”.
Success in hockey land
Toronto, and Canada generally, is traditionally hockey country — ice hockey — and home to the Toronto Maple Leafs, which were established in 1927. In 1995, the better part of a century later, the NBA decided to establish an expansion team. After a few anticipated years of struggle, the Toronto Raptors began to make some polite noise.
Vince Carter became the name synonymous with the Raptors. His electrifying play, which featured thrilling, game-winning shots and staggering dunks that no one had done before, brought much-needed excitement to the most overlooked team in the league. Although he still plays today, at the age of 42, his ball-through-the-legs, arm-in-the-hoop NBA Slam Dunk Contest performance is what most fans will remember him for.
With Carter, the Raps made their first playoff appearance in 2000 and won their first series a year later when they made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals. He played on the team from 1998 to 2004.
Fast-forward about a decade and the team began to reap some serious rewards.
Cue Nigerian executive Masai Ujiri, who signed on as the president in 2013 and put the right players in position, led by on-and-off-court BFFs DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, to contend for the championship title. That never happened, even though the team became visibly and tangibly better each season.
In the 2018 off season, in moves that shook the NBA, Ujiri traded DeRozan, who had broken team records, and Jakob Pöltl to the San Antonio Spurs for former finals most-valuable player Leonard and Danny Green.
This era also gave rise to what became affectionately known as the “bench mob”, the reserve players who became their own force on the team and some of the better role players in the league. Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell grew up under the leadership of Lowry and DeRozan and have since matured from fledgling players to scoring as well as defensive difference-makers.
Ujiri appointed Nick Nurse, who had coached the Raptors’ lower league team, but no other NBA team, as head coach. Nurse has not only proved his detractors wrong but also exceeded the expectations of wounded Raptors fans all over the world — and there are a considerable number of them.
In the age of boundless global reach, more and more players in the United States-based league come from other continents. The Raptors, specifically, have the largest constituency of African-born players in Congolese Serge Ibaka and Cameroonian Siakam, who is touted to win the league’s most-improved award this year. Both have played in the NBA’s exhibition Africa Game, which takes place in Johannesburg annually.
Every team has assets, liabilities and the desire to win championship titles. But of all these 30 teams, the Raptors continue to challenge the perpetual Yankee bias to show that they’ll do whatever it takes to get that. And they’ll do it in -10°C weather from over the border even when no one expects anything from them.