“If we intend to win in this building, we have to come in with the same mentality we play in Toronto with.”
The Raptors locker room was closed for longer than usual, and it was a sombre place when it opened. This wasn’t Game 1 or Game 2, which Toronto lost by a combined 50 points. This was worse. This was a complete immolation, from Kyle Lowry to DeMar DeRozan to a mind-boggling rebounding deficit to a defence that surrendered anything, everything, whatever you need.
“A lot of things happened, all of them bad things,” said forward Luis Scola. “There’s no question we can win. There’s no question we can play better. . . . We reacted well those two home games. Maybe it’s a good thing for us, and we play a good game. We were always going to have to come back and play a good game here, which we haven’t done in this series. But we can’t worry about that yet.”
In this building, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving were giants — LeBron James is always a giant — and the Raptors, who are still learning how to navigate the highest mountain passes, are specks. Before the game, LeBron talked about being calm, and afterwards he said, “I’ve been a part of some very adverse situations. And I just didn’t believe that this was one of them.”
So now the Raptors have to depend on the empowering thunder of their home crowd, which has been a tangible contributor in the big moments of these playoffs: Game 5 and Game 7 against Indiana, Game 5 and Game 7 against Miami, Games 3 and 4 here. Every playoff game is different, and if the Raptors can adjust it doesn’t matter how they lost, not really. It was ugly and strange and vacant, but this Raptors team has spent over a month veering from bad to awful to good enough, with a couple stops on terrific. They were terrific against Cleveland in Toronto. They just need to do that again.
“We definitely missed a chance,” said Scola. “We had to win one game here, we had two left, and one is gone. We had no answer.”
The home team has won every game of the season between these two teams, and at some point the Raptors may regret not pushing harder for the No. 1 seed, and instead resting key players down the stretch. They figured, well, all it would get you was a Game 7 at home if they played Cleveland in the conference final, and for a franchise that had never won a best-of-seven playoff series, that was a long way away.
That’s the only road left now. At this point, every Toronto Raptors game is the biggest one in franchise history, until the next one comes along. Scola was talking the morning of the game about how he worried, early in the playoffs, that the Raptors wouldn’t simply play to their level in the playoffs, until they did. He talked about how each new level of the playoffs is a challenge you have to learn.
“(We) turned a seven-game series into a three-game series. And now, you only have to beat them two times instead of four. Hopefully, we win today, but if not, another good deal would be making this series a one-game series.
“And if you make it a one-game series, you try to make it a one-half-game series. And then a quarter series. And then a three-minute game. And you beat them in a three-minute game. That’s how you grind out a series.”
Hardly easy, but that’s what’s left. Before the game, they showed that LeBron return ad, called “Together,” with its images of the people of Cleveland linked arm in arm, row upon row, surrounding the arena and filling the streets, chanting as a community as he speaks of the connection to Cleveland in a huddle. “The toughness we have on the court, comes from the city,” LeBron says. It’s one hell of an ad.
So. Toronto’s turn.