There’s no shortage of major moments from the Raptors run to the championship in 2019.
This week, we remembered The Shot — an emotional apex that is probably deserving of its own city holiday. There was also Fred VanVleet’s back-breaking three in the Finals, Kawhi Leonard nearly winning the thing on his own in Game 5, and Kyle Lowry’s statement-making 11 points in the opening minutes of Game 6.
If there was a game you can track a through line to today, though — and one that has limitless re-watch ability during this period of staying home and watching old sports — it’s Game 3 against Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals.
I’m avoiding inherent bias here too, since the game I was at in-person happened a week and a half later with the clinching Game 6 — another impossible moment keyed by a comeback in the second half.
That game too, though, like so many others was set up by Game 3.
It was the first game of the series in Toronto, and one where we saw the Raptors’ role players build confidence in real time. There was finally erasure from VanVleet’s disappearance against the Sixers (12.5% from the field), Powell’s limited minutes (11.3 per game), followed by Pascal Siakam’s early series struggles in Wisconsin (21 points combined in Games 1 and 2).
Down 0-2 to the Bucks, the Raptors not only needed a win, they eventually needed it through two overtimes despite Lowry fouling out and Leonard injuring himself on a layup early in the game. The role players had to step up, and they did.
First off, this is maybe the best Marc Gasol game to watch from the entire run. In front of a salivating Raptors crowd looking for someone on the supporting cast to make an outside shot, Gasol drilled monumental shots and made some of my favourite passes of the series: pushing the tempo and, more than anything, helping Siakam get in rhythm with some easy looks.
Then, of course, it’s a pivotal Norman Powell game — 7-for-13 from the field for 19 points, he was called to play nearly 30 minutes with Danny Green missing almost every shot he put up. Even VanVleet, who didn’t wake up until later in the series, made a big three late in the game to keep Toronto ahead.
It was the first real stirring after a disjointed effort in Milwaukee, and most importantly, it created the blueprint for how the Raptors were going to win the next three games. By spreading the Bucks out and playing enough shooting threats, they were able to keep Milwaukee’s vaunted paint defense under wraps and continue scoring at a quick clip.
What if the revival never happens?
If that confident style of play never returns, it’s of course not a sure thing that the Raptors make the Finals at all. Leonard’s injury would knock his numbers off a bit for the rest of the series, making it even more important that Toronto got the types of performances they did in Game 4 — 48 points combined from Powell, VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka to prop up the starters.
For me, though, this change of mindset goes beyond just the 2019 playoffs run. Coming out of the Sixers series, the Raptors were bruised, barely scraping by a physical team in seven games before taking on the best the East had to offer. By not only turning around the ship and winning, but winning four straight games to get to the Finals — it had to create an intrinsic confidence above what they were feeling before.
It helped create belief against the Warriors. It also helped that belief manifest after Kawhi Leonard walked in free agency. You could see it on the court in this 2019-20 rendition of the team — incredible confidence and comfort in the team’s own skin, knowing the identity of defense-first and precise execution as a way of overcoming any talent gaps.
It also helped bolster individual careers. Fred VanVleet finding his shot allowed him to reach those big moments of guarding Steph Curry and making huge threes in the Finals, undoubtedly earning him a metric tonne of cash this off-season.
Norman Powell has also never looked more assured than he has in 2019-20 — now he’s the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week for, what, six months? Maybe a year?
For me, a lot of that was set up by Game 3 and the momentum swing that followed. When the bench came alive, we saw that the Raptors could compete at the highest level in the playoffs the same way they had in the regular season, and didn’t have to rely on Leonard dragging them. It then created seeds of swagger for this season, the most fun in franchise history.