It was approaching an hour after the Toronto Raptors’ heart-pounding Game 6 double-overtime victory against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night to force a seventh and decisive finale.
A downtown Toronto neighbourhood basketball court, dimly lit by surrounding street lights, was packed with a bunch of young men, shooting hoops and mulling every detail of the game, discussing with great enthusiasm the awesome Raptors moments — almost too many to recall.
They then took turns recreating Kyle Lowry’s difficult fade-away jumper over Boston’s Kemba Walker with 11 seconds left to secure the win.
It’s a similar scene playing out on driveways and outdoor community courts across Canada for a second-straight postseason of Raptors basketball. The defending champions have captured the hearts and minds of Canadians from coast to coast.
WATCH | CBC Sports’ Devin Heroux recaps Game 6:
And now there’s another Game 7 in the midst of a playoff run that could again send Raptors fans into a stratosphere of fandom.
Remember it was during Game 7 last season against Philadelphia when Kawhi Leonard electrified millions across the country with his bounce-around-the-rim, gravity-defying buzzer-beater. It propelled the Raps into the Eastern Conference Final and then all the way to a first championship.
Here we go again — except this time there’s no Leonard.
But there is Lowry.
He’s playing inspired basketball and putting the team on his back, logging a staggering 53 minutes during Wednesday night’s thriller and scoring 33 points. He took an elbow to the chin; good enough for three stitches. He took charges, which is part of his patented gritty play. And he sank the Celtics with that deadly jumper late in the second overtime frame.
WATCH | Raptors force Game 7 against Celtics:
Fans can’t get enough of Lowry in these past two post-seasons — a far cry from the player who was once harshly criticized for not being able to finish in the playoffs.
The Celtics are learning what the Raptors had to learn the hard way — just how fine the line is between being a good playoff team and being great, and how hard it is to take down a champion.
WATCH | Anunoby’s Game 3 winner reinvigorates Raptors:
And while it’s anyone’s guess who will emerge victorious in Friday’s seventh game, there’s something to be said about these Raptors, how they’ve learned from past disappointments and how they’ve remained poised and focused through it all.
All for one, one for all
But it’s obviously not just Lowry. One of the more impressive aspects of this Toronto team is its ability to lean on one another when other players are struggling.
Pascal Siakam has been struggling and that was on full display in Game 6.
But cue Norm “Playoff” Powell to step up in both overtimes to help lead the team.
Marc Gasol finally found his range from beyond the arc.
OG Anunoby has continued to make big shots in pivotal moments. And Serge Ibaka’s three consecutive three-pointers helped swing the momentum in the Raptors’ favour in the second quarter.
They all have each other’s backs and the bigger the pressure, the better these Raptors play.
Perhaps that’s part of what’s fuelling this love affair between the Raps and their rabid fanbase. Sure, people love to hitch their bandwagon to a champion. But more than that, these Raptors are remarkably relatable and resilient, humble to a fault, and have provided joy to die-hards and casual fans along the way.
There were so many times during Game 6 the Raptors could have quit. They trailed by as many as 13 points in the game. They trailed again in both overtimes. But they just kept fighting.
Now they’re preparing to take to the court in one final battle against the Celtics in what’s turned out to be a riveting series full of plot twists and drama.
And in a one-game, winner-takes-all showdown, coaching becomes that much more important.
Cue NBA coach of the year Nick Nurse.
“This is why you coach,” he said at Thursday’s news conference.
“A lot on the line. It’s the crazy love of a coach to be in the middle of this.”
And it’s the crazy love of a basketball-crazed nation that will again be living and dying on every play.