It was uncomfortably cold in Scotiabank Arena—a sea of men and women in jackets and hoodies—as the defending NBA champions held their media day just over 10 months ago.
Was it the cold draft left by the open door Kawhi Leonard walked through? Or perhaps the mass exodus of media who lost interest in covering a team seeking to defend its title without their Finals MVP. One reason after another was being made for why the Raptors wouldn’t contend, but the individuals who mattered most couldn’t care less.
“The Toronto Raptors is always known to be that team that everyone kinda don’t look at,” Pascal Siakam said back then. “It definitely puts a chip on our shoulder and we want to continue to grind and—shout-out Norm (Powell) Understand the Grind—continue to be who we are and work hard and that’s what we’ve always done.”
To a man, the Raptors carried an assertive yet calming tone when addressing questions about possibly having lowered expectations after the departure of Leonard and Danny Green. It spoke to an unshakeable core, something Leonard left an indelible imprint on but was only part of momentarily. He is an all-world talent who elevated Toronto to a whole different level, but that was then.
From Day 1, Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Norman Powell took their turns proving they had become better players. Kyle Lowry went back to the usage he grew accustomed to in a Raptors jersey until he had to cater to Leonard, and Serge Ibaka proved that development isn’t a trick reserved for kids. While on the subject, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher emerged as possible playoff rotation pieces, as did Rondae Hollis-Jefferson after being challenged to live up to the lofty championship standards of this franchise.
"We play for a higher level. And now we're playing for our sons, our families, social injustices, keeping the conversation going, but we're also playing for a championship." - Kyle Lowry
All of that was put together by head coach Nick Nurse and his coaching staff, being stern when the occasion called for it and putting an arm around the shoulder when that seemed in order, too. Tailoring his approach to each individual as much as he mixes and matches his strategies, Nurse has found the perfect balance to keep the Raptors ticking over.
“There’s just a little bit more historical experience since you’ve made it all the way through to the end,” Nurse said. “You understand that, if you really think back about how up and down all the series are and there’s emotion and there’s this and that... you maybe can handle some of the highs and lows even better. I thought we did a tremendous job of handling that last year. It was something we certainly knew we were going to have to handle and focus on.”
And perhaps that is the difference: seeing and grabbing that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The Raptors have been all-in as far as commitment, work ethic, and chemistry is concerned, but historically always fell short. At a certain point, when you’re giving the best you can over and over again without the ultimate reward, it would be hard not to look in the mirror and think you’re not good enough. But for the first time, they came out on the other side and that has ingrained a level of confidence in each of the players that can’t be stripped away. You can’t tell someone who’s already done something they can’t do it again.
“That feeling is unmatched,” Lowry said. “Other than my children being born, I don't think I've had a feeling like that ever. And that's the motivation to keep doing that. We play for the rest of our families and do what we can for our community. But we play to win championships. We play for a higher level. And now we're playing for our sons, our families, social injustices, keeping the conversation going, but we're also playing for a championship.”
The Raptors have been proactive in using their platforms to fight against inequality. There were the two team buses that drove down from Naples to Orlando with Black Lives Matter painted across them; Powell has used his Understand the Grind brand to sell relevant merchandise and donate the proceeds to causes both in Canada and the United States. VanVleet has looked to do similar things with his brand Bet On Yourself back in Rockford. As a team they continue to preach the message that Breonna Taylor’s family is yet to see justice and much work is still to be done.
On the court, everyone’s treated like an All-Star. Over the final couple of games that meant little to Toronto, the likes of Stanley Johnson, Paul Watson, and Dewan Hernandez saw minutes and just the way they brought as much energy as they could to make up in any way for the absence of fans in the Orlando bubble, the core rotation players returned the favour when it was their turn to sit on the bench.
“One thing about our team, we all treat each other as equals,” Lowry said. “To have those guys out there, Stanley makes the game-winner, Dewan makes a big three, Paul Watson makes a big play, Malcolm Miller playing great defence. Those guys being out there for a game on national TV. We all have the same goal and we’re on the same level.”
Some say the Raptors have no superstar but the truth is they just have no ego. They are filled with stars from Lowry to Siakam to Gasol. OG Anunoby is an all-world defender whose name people won’t confuse with software company Adobe soon enough. VanVleet became a household name during last year’s Finals and Ibaka has become a constant stream of viral content. Powell would likely have been a Sixth Man of the Year candidate if not for having played a couple more games as a starter than off the bench. And yet, nothing is about the individual. The highest drafted player on the team is Johnson; eighth overall in 2015. There isn’t a single lottery pick beyond him. They will sacrifice for each other on the defensive end and keep looking for the open man until they find him on the other.
This is a team with the swagger of a champion and the scrappiness of an underdog.
“I think all of us at some point have had to work for it,” VanVleet said. “Nothing has really been given to us. We kind of take that identity. All of our coaches kind of fit that. It’s our identity from the top down. Whatever narrative people will write about is what it’s going to be. We know who we are and that we’re good enough to do it and that we’re tough. It’s going to be hard to beat us four times. If you can do that, we’ll shake your hand and congratulate you. But I think we all like our chances.”