Looking a little bleary-eyed but with smiles a mile wide, the NBA champion Raptors returned to Toronto over the weekend to begin the next phase of their celebration.
Hundreds of thousands of supporters are expected to pack the city’s downtown core Monday morning for a parade that will serve as one last blowout after the Raptors won their first league title with a six-game victory over the Golden State Warriors.
“I stopped at one place on the way home last night and the whole place went crazy when I walked in the door,” coach Nick Nurse said Sunday. “It’s awesome, it’s exciting, the people waiting at the airport last night. I’m excited to see what it’s going to be like tomorrow.
“I think again, there’s a lot of specialness to it because it’s the first one, the way that Canadians went about this and how much they supported the team.”
After celebrating Thursday night’s victory into the wee hours in Oakland, the party continued with a stop in Las Vegas. Some players went to Los Angeles after that while others returned home to a hero’s welcome Saturday evening at Pearson International Airport.
“It’s a whirlwind for sure,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said at the end-of-season availability at the OVO Athletic Centre. “It’s been one long day since the last buzzer went off.”
The Raptors used a well-balanced offensive attack and stellar defensive play _ anchored by Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard _ to break down the Warriors and win three times in their building.
Toronto capped the series with a 114-110 victory at Oracle Arena to send the Ontario capital and Raptors fans around the country into a tizzy.
Golden State’s depth was tested in the series and it eventually became an issue. Superstar Kevin Durant made a brief appearance in Game 5 before rupturing his right Achilles tendon and Klay Thompson went down late in Game 6 with a torn left knee ligament.
After years of coming up short in the post-season, the Raptors finally got to raise the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in their first NBA Finals appearance since entering the league as an expansion team in 1995.
“The adversity, how hard it is, and sometimes just feeling like you’re the best in the world and then feeling like you’re the worst the next day, it’s crazy,” said Raptors forward Pascal Siakam. “It’s definitely something that will stay with me the rest of my life.”
Toronto won the Atlantic Division with a 58-24 record before dispatching Orlando, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and finally the two-time defending champion Warriors.
The Raptors had several hurdles along the way.
Toronto looked lost in its first-round opener against the Magic. The 76ers pushed the Raptors to the brink before Leonard hit that magical four-bounce Game 7 walkoff jump shot.
The Bucks came close to taking a 3-0 series lead before dropping four straight. And the Warriors, shorthanded but still loaded, were a handful.
“It’s just so draining, beating a team four times each round, it’s really hard,” said Raptors centre Marc Gasol. “Only the best team wins it. The best team standing is the one that’s going to win it all.”
It was Toronto’s first title in one of the Big Four sports (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB) since the Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993.
The Raptors could have a much different look next season depending on what transpires over the coming weeks. Veterans Danny Green, Gasol and Leonard can all become free agents.
The subject of Leonard’s future has been a hot topic since he arrived in Toronto last summer in a blockbuster deal with San Antonio. He’s a superstar in his prime and the Raptors would love to build around him for years to come.
Leonard has yet to tip his hand on his plans.
“At least speaking for myself, there’s nothing more that we can do,” VanVleet said. “I mean we’ve done it, the city has done it, this franchise has done it, the coaches have done it, the teammates have done it, we’ve done our job.
“The best way to recruit somebody is to just be yourself over the course of the year. I would assume that he knows what is here and what makes this place special. If it’s enough, then it’ll be enough and if it’s not, it’s not. So we would all love for him to be back.”
Even though the NBA draft, free agency period and potential off-season changes are just around the corner, the focus will be on the present for at least one more day.
Mostly sunny skies and comfortable temperatures are forecast for a parade and celebration that has been almost a quarter-century in the making.
“I’m just looking forward to enjoying this moment with the city and with the people here who have been itching for this for so long,” VanVleet said.
“To finally be able to deliver is pretty special.”