Friday was set to be one of the biggest days in Toronto in years. Drake finally dropped his long-awaited album Views and the Raptors were set to win their first playoff series in 15 years. Jurassic Park – a little patch of pavement outside the Air Canada Centre, sponsored by Ford – was packed and jumping. At halftime, Drake made his presence known and played a small set for the crowd. Justin Bieber showed up up for a moment. It could’ve been a big day.
Instead, it was a wrathful hell of a evening cued by the Raptors sputtering and running out of gas in the second half. By the time I bailed on the game too long into the fourth it had gone from ahead by four at the half to down by 19 and everybody was missing shots. It was ugly basketball, really. I think I went to bed angry and I definitely know I woke up with a headache.
Sunday brought anxiety: a Game 7, played in primetime, on the Raptors home court. I have many bad memories of games like this: visions flashing in my head of games dropped to the Nets and the Magic, Vince Carter’s shots not dropping and Chris Bosh lying on the floor. There is a lot of bad mojo for the Raps in big moments, amplified through a prism of angles and #takes. This is not a recap, not a postgame report. It’s a series of snapshots, or Views, if you’d rather, of Game 7.
View One: The Subway Pulling Into Union Station.
There is a minor controversy brewing in Toronto about their new fleet of streetcars, which have been delayed again and again since the original 2009 order with Canadian aerospace maufacturer Bombardier, a company mired in their own, more significant controversy. According to the Financial Post, the company was supposed to deliver 75 streetcars in 2015; now it’s down to 30. Instead of shiny, futuristic new streetcars, the TTC is relying on aging, red fishbowls.
Likewise, this Raptors team are eager for the future to come but for are short of tangible results. Consider this: last year, Lou Williams won the Sixth Man of the Year award and the Raptors players were named Player of the Week four times and Player of the Month twice. The team won 49 games and their division. They were swept in the first round.
Indeed, since losing to Philly in the 2001 semifinals, they’ve lost five first-round series, often in new and exciting ways: falling apart against former star Vince Carter, by a single point at the buzzer, to a team led by Bradley Beal. After Game 6, I had was a palpable feeling that things were once again, being pushed off to a vague future.
View Two: Courtside.
Early on Sunday afternoon, the Toronto Blue Jays played the Tampa Bay Rays. Marcus Stroman was on the mound, pitching on his 25th birthday. He allowed one run and three hits through eight innings. Stroman is one of the brightest figures in Toronto sports right now: young, confident and fun to watch. He’s the Jays ace pitcher right now and a pleasure to watch. More to the point, he’s a convert to Toronto. In a piece he wrote for The Players Tribune, Stroman mentioned how when he was drafted to Toronto, it wasn’t really a place he wanted to be. Like most Americans, he figured it was a cold city, both in temperature and in how it treated non-hockey athletes. And, like several of Toronto’s most popular athletes have realized in the past few years, it’s actually a great city.
The Raptors and their success have played a role in this and in shaping how people viewed the city, both from within and without. To outsiders, Toronto was a depressing place where all the teams were also-rans and second-class behind the Maple Leafs. It wasn’t for nothing that Stephen Marche called the city “the worst sports city in the world” at Grantland and even if his piece was clickbaity at best, it represented how the outside felt about the place. At the same time, people in the city viewed things with a dark sense of humour: the Raptors and Jays were bad, sure, but tickets were easy to get; if you waited deep enough into the season, you could even get them for free.
But the Raptors slowly started a culture change in the city. When things started looking up after they traded Rudy Gay, the wheels quickly started moving. They landed the 2016 All Star Game, started making occasional appearances on TNT and ESPN and, most interestingly of all, they landed Drake as an ambassador. Suddenly one of the biggest names in entertainment wasn’t just a fan, he was helping design the uniforms. He was sitting courtside, a northern response to people like Spike Lee and Jack Nicholson. It’s cool to be seen at Raptors games.
For Game 7, just hours after finishing his game, as unofficial city ambassadors of their own accord, Stroman and Jose Bautista took their courtside seats for the Raptors game.
View Three: Raccoons.
Over the past few years, the raccoon has become something like a mascot for Toronto. I was tempted to call them humble, but anyone who’s ever dealt with them knows they’re anything but: they’re tenacious, smart and when they want something, like leftover chicken, they will figure out a way to get it. Which is why the city is rolling out a new green bin, one supposedly raccoon-proof. “The diet of raccoons is none of my concern,” said Toronto mayor John Tory at a recent media conference. It was a very Toronto moment; cities like Calgary, Portland or Miami don’t seem to have this kind of thing.
They don’t also have a bench like Toronto, tenacious and unrelenting. They don’t have Cory Joseph or Bismack Biyombo. Joseph, in particular, has led the Raptors bench and become a local fave. True, he’s a local, which means he could play a minute in garbage time and people would love him. Instead, Joseph is averaging 23 minutes and ten points a game, both notable jumps from his regular season averages. In Game 6, he played well in a loss: 15 points on four-of-six shooting, plus a couple of trips to the line. In Game 7, he quietly came off the bench and shot efficiently, hitting four of eight. The rest of the Raptors reserves contributed, too: Bismack Biyombo, who has played in every game this season, grabbed 11 rebounds and even scored a basket; Norman Powell hit five of six, including three three-pointers, for 13 points. More to the point: all three played big minutes in the fourth quarter of Game 7, while players like Terrance Ross and Patrick Patterson spent long stretches on the bench. In this series, the Raptors bench was key: in low-scoring, scrappy games, they played tough defence and figured out ways to win, even when their offence went cold and the Pacers started catching up.
View Four: Outside.
Ford Square, currently d/b/a Jurrassic Park, has been home to some ugly vibes in recent years. I was there hanging out when the shot clock failed in an ESPN-televised game against the Nets; I remember watching a boisterous Maple Leafs crowd wilt and cower in a very tragic seventh game against the Boston Bruins. This was not that. As the clock ticked down last night, the Vines and Snapchats showed the crowd jumping and celebrating. I thought to myself, I’m not used to this and I don’t want to spoil the moment. But it was a moment: Toronto finally won a seven game series, finally got to the second round and everyone outside was jumping around. “The monkey is off our back,” said Kyle Lowry. Bring on the second round.