Photo credit: Bernard Weil/Toronto Star
By: Sebastian Parodi | @sebastianparodi
“The Raptors are going to get swept.”
That is what the “NBA experts” were saying. That’s what everyone outside of Toronto was thinking. Yet here I am, watching replays of the Raptors’ last game – Game 6, not Game 4.
The Raptors managed to win two games against the strong Cleveland Cavaliers in their first ever Eastern Conference Finals. Just saying that really puts a smile on my face.
Game 6 started off well, much better than games 1, 2 and 5. The Raptors did not let the Cavs get out to an early 20-point lead in the first two quarters. As the game went on though, Cleveland’s talent, poise, and championship caliber appeared. They took hold of the lead and never looked back.
Yet with the whole stadium and those outside in Jurassic Park behind him and his team, Kyle Lowry was not going to let the Raptors go down without one last push. He scored multiple threes and had some drives to the basket that kept the Raptors relatively close in the late third quarter and early fourth. Unfortunately, #lowrytime was not enough to stop the Cavs, but it was reminiscent of multiple occasions during the regular season, when both he and the Raptors refused to quit.
Toronto Raptors Have Come A Long Way
People tend to forget that half a decade ago the Raptors used to get blown out in several games a season. I can’t remember one instance of that this year. Additionally, they were within striking distance of the reigning champions, the Golden State Warriors, when they played a game here in Toronto.
That is what I love about this team. They keep proving people wrong. They may not be as talented as some of the other teams in the league, but no one can deny their level of effort and tenacity. When you witness a team or player doing everything possible to make winning plays and beat the odds, it’s both admirable and contagious.
This is the team that wasn’t supposed to make it as far as they did. They weren’t supposed to win a single game in this series. Not only did they avoid getting swept, but they surprised everyone in the league and put up a fight.
After getting swept by the Washington Wizards in the first round last year, many outside of the Six thought this season would end in disappointment. The Raptors’ goal was simple: win a playoff series. Many doubted them and expected failure. Instead, the team won more than 50 games, which put them in the playoffs as the second seed – a first in franchise history.
Many players had break out seasons. The Raptors beat two strong teams in the playoffs en route to the ECF where they would play a team they beat twice during the regular season. The Raptors not only achieved their goals, but surpassed all expectations. If that doesn’t earn respect and praise for this team, I don’t know what does.
The Best Fans in the League Are in Toronto
I strongly believe in supporting the home team no matter what, and that is exactly what “The North” did. I’ve stood out on Jurassic Park and have seen fans from so many different age groups and cultural backgrounds that genuinely love and support the team. Through rain or shine – or even a mix of light flurries – people came out from all corners of the city to support the Raptors whether they lost the game badly or it was freezing cold outside.
No one can doubt the fan base’s loyalty and dedication. Just ask anyone who was at the arena or watching Game 6 against the Cavs on TV. The chant “Let’s Go Raptors” echoed throughout the building with three minutes left in the game, despite the fact that the end of the season was inevitable. People don’t understand how important it is to the players knowing they have support. You could see from their facial expressions, even though they were eliminated, that they were thankful knowing that their efforts did not go unappreciated.
Even Lebron James in a post-game interview expressed amazement at the atmosphere in the ACC. As the crowd continued to chant while the Raptors players were leaving the court, he praised Toronto saying, “Do you hear this? Unbelievable respect and much respect to these fans, to this country – this is unbelievable.”
We really do have amazing fans here.
We The North, Indeed
The “We the North” marketing campaign was a huge catalyst for the fanaticism that gripped the city. For years, the Raptors have been labeled as the other team, Canada’s team, the underdog, or as outsiders, but never as contenders. Needless to say, this bothers a lot of people, including myself. It only seemed fitting that the “We the North” slogan really put that feeling of alienation from the league into perspective. Throughout the Raptors franchise history, they have been completely forgotten and pushed to the side by the NBA universe. You see this easily when you visit NBA.com and notice the lack of news or coverage of the team.
This season, many NBA analysts predicted a first round exit even after the Raptors’ record setting regular season. They barely get any airtime on U.S. national television, and if they do it is most likely due to the fact that Drake is walking up and down the sidelines. The alienation from the league is evident during games through lack of calls going the Raptors way, especially when playing against the other elite teams. This playoff series hopefully gave the league a wake up call.
Raptors’ Terrific Season Means Great Things For Basketball in Canada
As someone who grew up playing basketball, my dream was not only to one day play in the NBA, but to play in front of my city at the ACC. Unfortunately, this didn’t come true. I’ve always felt like if there were more opportunities for young kids to develop, that more people from Toronto and all across Canada would have a better shot of making it to the professional level, whether that be in North America or overseas.
That to me is one of the most important effects of the Raptors success in the playoffs: the development of basketball in Canada. The end of this series marks the beginning of steady growth for the Raptors and more opportunities to bring in high-level talent because players want to play for a contending team. And that means another shot at the Eastern Conference Finals.
Additionally, the attention and respect they have gained not only benefits them, but basketball players across the country. Clearly there is a demand for basketball in Canada and the success of the Raptors as well as the reaction by the fans, should help introduce the necessary foundation to start developmental opportunities for young players.
In just the past five years I have seen improvement in this aspect in the city, and it should continue to grow. The Raptors have a development team that is linked to the NBA, the Raptors 905, which is a tremendous leap forward because that gives players an opportunity to be recruited and scouted by the highest quality organizations in the world. More leagues, clinics, clubs, training sessions, coaches, trainers, will hopefully become more accessible. One model this growth can follow is that of Canadian hockey, where there are multiple leagues and many different ways for players to make it pro.
The Raptors being eliminated was tough to witness, but there are many positives that can be taken from their playoff push and as a fan, they gave me so much more to look forward to both in the ACC and for basketball in Canada.
LET’S GO RAPTORS!