Though it’s been around for nearly 20 years, NBA basketball is still, in many ways, a young sport in this country. That’s what failure does – stunts growth.
As the Raptors have progressed this year, they’ve been drawing up new fans in their wake.
TV ratings are way up. Basketball beat out hockey last week in a city that likes to think of itself (usually incorrectly) as the home of the national game.
On the streets, Wednesday’s Game 5 against Brooklyn seemed like a great arrival. A general buzz overtook the downtown core. And we’re not just counting the numerous entrepreneurs who’d sprung from the ground selling a Wal-Mart’s worth of pirated “[Expletive] Brooklyn” gear.
Presumably, there were many newcomers to the game or this team watching Wednesday night.
To those of you, I apologize on behalf of the franchise. This morning, I presume you’re combing the Internet, trying to find a sports psychologist who will come to your house and talk you out from under the bed. If you find one, shoot me a name. Everyone who was there could use someone to talk to.
“My emotion?” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said afterward, looking as close as he ever gets to rage. “You wouldn’t want to hear it.”
First off – the Raptors won. 115-113. They will head to Brooklyn on Friday night with the chance to kill this thing off. Maybe you’ll be out of the sanatorium by then.
They didn’t deserve to win, but ‘deserve’ has nothing to do with it at this stage. The Raptors crawled over the finish line on all fours. But they did it. That’s something.
If you didn’t see it, you’ll be wondering – how bad was it? Were you there at the sack of Carthage? You weren’t? Well, then, it’s going to be hard to get the proper feeling across.
As has been their habit in this series, the Raptors began gingerly, adapting to a very physical game that was (once again) spottily officiated. They found their rhythm near the end of the first quarter. In the second, they began to lap the Nets.
The first half ended with Kyle Lowry stumbling forward to take a three-point shot and only releasing it when he was nearly parallel to the ground. It went in. The crowd on hand had passed beyond delirium. They were getting close to hysteria. It was 62-44. The rout was on.
As I walked out of the arena at the half in search of fresh air, a guy tumbled out after me and lit up a joint. It was – at that point – that sort of night.
Later, Casey would call this stage “withstanding prosperity.”
It continued giddily on like that in the third quarter. The Raptors extended their lead to 26 points near the end of that frame. They were scoring for fun. The Nets were staggering around the court like five interchangeable mopes chasing a single hat.
It was embarrassing, to be honest. That’s how bad a beating it was.
The Nets are the most expensively assembled team in the history of the league. They’re stacked with names that will ring out for decades. If they’re going to lose, it’d be easier to watch if they managed it with some dignity.
Then the fourth quarter started. And things changed. Violently.
The Raptors – presumably convinced they could not lose no matter how poorly they played – decided to test that theory. The Nets began making shots. The Raptors did everything they could to help out.
Three times in the fourth, the Raptors fouled a man on a made three-point attempt. That shouldn’t happen once in a game. Ever. And three times.
The Nets scored 44 points in the fourth, a team playoff best. With three minutes remaining, it was tied.
It’s hard to describe the mood in the crowd. Midway through the first half, the latest Rob Ford news broke. Then the lead, and the collapse. This was the night Toronto reached peak Toronto.
The fans weren’t cheering by the end. They were keening.
And, as usual, Kyle Lowry got the Raptors through it. When it really mattered, he made shots. DeMar DeRozan tied off the wound with free throws. The Raptors won a game they could not afford to lose.
This loss would instead have created a psychic void that might have taken an entire season to fill. It had the capacity to taint an entire group.
“Intelligence,” Casey spat, when asked what was missing in that nearly fatal frame. “That’s why it’s hard to win at this level without veterans.”
Casey was furious, and no wonder. He knows how close the Raptors came to disaster.
And now – thrillingly – they stand on the brink of euphoria. What an amazing sport. Hope you enjoyed it.
Now best you toddle off to spend a little time by yourself in a quiet place. You’ll want to steel yourself for all the ‘fun’ you’ll be having on Friday.