Photo Credit: Toronto Raptors/Twitter
Do you remember where you were when your favourite team advanced to its first Finals appearance in franchise history? I bet most Raptors fans will tell you they were sitting in their living room, embracing friends and family in celebration as Kawhi & Co. hoisted the Eastern Conference Championship trophy above their heads for all of Scotiabank Arena to see.
My story is a little different.
On May 25th, 2019, I was at a birthday party. Some people around me were playing beer pong, others were singing along to the party tunes that were blaring out of the Sonos speaker, and everyone was having a good time. But my eyes were glued to the TV, where RDS – Bell Media’s French-language sports station – aired the celebratory scenes from Toronto. Nothing else around me mattered as I reveled in the joy and excitement that a chance at an NBA Championship meant to me and the rest of Canada.
The party was for my 21st birthday. While some of my closest friends enjoyed drinks and conversation around me, at a gathering that essentially celebrated me, I was busy celebrating what would go down as one of my most cherished sports memories that I will certainly remember forever.
But enough about me. How did Toronto secure its first-ever championship appearance on that fateful night?
The Raptors’ 100-94 victory over Milwaukee – a fourth win in as many games – knocked off the highly-touted Bucks after a dramatic comeback.
Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol started the game for Nick Nurse. Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez stood across from them, determined to spoil the party in Toronto and prolong the series.
Mike Budenholzer’s team came ready to play, jumping out to an emphatic lead early on. Milwaukee shot six-for-nine from three-point range in the opening quarter. Toronto struggled on offence, converting only six of their 19 field-goal attempts in the first quarter.
Siakam led the Raptors’ offence in the first half, scoring 11 points on four-of-seven shooting and one three-pointer. Lowry went three-for-five from the field for nine points, while Leonard was the only Raptor to end the half with a positive plus/minus with plus-1.
The Bucks were cruising into the third quarter, leading by 15 points with under three minutes to go in the frame. That’s when everything changed, and the most iconic comeback in Toronto Raptors history began.
Down 76-61, Kawhi took the ball to the paint, where he was met by a wall of Bucks’ defenders. He adjusted and got off a floater that went in, getting fouled by Ersan Ilyasova in the process.
After cutting the deficit to five points, Fred VanVleet found Lowry on the perimeter, who made the extra pass to a wide-open Norman Powell for a big corner-three.
The comeback was completed in epic fashion, as Lowry blew by Brook Lopez and found Serge Ibaka on a baseline cut to the basket, who went up hard with an emphatic dunk to tie the game at 78.
The most memorable play of the night came moments later, once the Raptors had clearly shifted the tides and taken control of the game. After Lowry swiped the ball away from Middleton, he took off on a breakaway with the imposing Antetokounmpo on his heels. Aware that any attempt at the rim would get blocked, he turned to hand the ball off to the trailing Leonard, who yammed all over Giannis with a left-handed slam. I could watch this replay all day long just because of the Raptors’ bench reaction.
After trading baskets for the last few minutes, Leonard came up with another huge play when he grabbed his 17th rebound of the night off a Siakam free-throw miss with 4.5 seconds left. He was fouled and converted his free-throw attempts to bury the Bucks and book Toronto’s ticket to the Finals.
Cue the pandemonium.
At the time, we didn’t know that this would only be the second biggest celebration to be held in the 2019 playoffs, but the significance of the moment and the game will live on in fans’ minds forever.
Game 6 was won in typical Raptors fashion, with a strong group effort and the unmatched support of the best fanbase in basketball. It was also an all-time playoff performance by an all-time player in Kawhi Leonard, whose 27 point, 17 rebound, seven assist, two steal and two block performance encapsulated a legendary postseason run.
I don’t think Raptors fans have come down from the high of that playoff run yet, and that’s okay. It took long enough to get in that position, so there’s no rush in moving on.
All of us who watched this game, whether in-person or on TV, remember the emotions we felt as the weight of the moment dawned on us. I think back on the smile I couldn’t wipe from my face, on a night I’ll never forget, thinking of a birthday gift from the basketball gods that I’ll cherish forever.