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The Raptors Have Nothing to Prove—to Kawhi Leonard or Anyone Else

The Toronto sports scene was forever changed by last season’s NBA championship run. Leonard will see that for himself in his first trip back to Scotiabank Arena with the Clippers.

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I’ve been to series clinchers and heartbreaking Game 7s at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, but the loudest crowd I’ve ever been a part of for a Raptors home game was assembled on January 8, 2006, for a matchup against Vince Carter and the New Jersey Nets. Late in the first half, Carter playfully goaded his old pal Morris Peterson into slapping him in the face during a break in play; Steve Javie caught the second half of the exchange and tossed Mo Pete from the game, prompting Vince to laughingly beg for his old teammate to get a reprieve. To borrow a phrase from the pro wrestling playbook, the heat during this exchange was thermonuclear; if you want to get literary about it, it was the equivalent of the Two Minutes Hate from 1984. But at the end of the game, when Vince drained a contested, pull-up 3-pointer from well behind the arc with .01 seconds left on the clock, the building was plunged from a cacophony of catcalls (including my own unprintable comments, shouted from the upper deck) into a profound silence—the sound of 19,000 haters shutting up in unison.

Two years ago, The Ringer asked me to write a “A Brief History of the Toronto Raptors Coming Up Short”—a shameful inventory whose primal scene was a Carter buzzer-beater that didn’t go down. I’d argue that for the first decade of the Raptors’ existence, the team and its supporters were defined, at least to an extent, by the so-close-yet-so-far nature of that failure and VC’s subsequent departure for the greener pastures of the Meadowlands, where he suddenly rediscovered his “lost” dunking ability and clutch-shot-making gene. God forbid if the Nets had actually won a title during Carter’s tenure there: The blow to Toronto’s collective sporting ego might have been lethal. It was bad enough that the guy who put us on the basketball map was plying his trade for a division rival, giving him even more opportunities to torture the people who used to chant his name. In the grand scheme of things, that loss to the Nets in a regular-season game was meaningless, but it felt grandly symbolic of where the Raptors stood at the time: a franchise without much say about what goes on in the NBA, and whose fans could really make themselves heard only in the context of scorn, frustration, and jilted rage in the face of the one who got away.

Of course, things are different now, and any reckoning with the Raptors begins with a shot that went through the basket: the Shot (apologies to Michael Jordan), launched courtesy of Kawhi Leonard and significant enough to warrant its own awesome oral history by The Ringer’s John Gonzalez. “With every bounce, all the frustration of 24 years of basketball,” recalled Raptors broadcaster Leo Rautins to Gonzalez, neatly summarizing the up-and-down (and up, and down, and up, and down, and up, and down) suspense of Leonard’s “Father Stretch My Hands” prayer over Joel Embiid. “I have never heard a building erupt from such a quiet moment to such bedlam in an instant,” said sideline reporter Eric Smith; watching at home, my wife Tanya and I both screamed loudly enough in our living room that I spent the next couple of days Googling hearing loss symptoms.

I’m wondering what the sound is going to be Wednesday night at the Scotiabank when Leonard makes his return to Toronto for the first time as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers—a visit that will coincide with him receiving one of those unprecedentedly blinged-out Raptors championship rings, featuring 74 diamonds per item (Adam Sandler’s Uncut Gems character would plotz, or maybe have a heart attack). It’s been well documented—in Toronto, and elsewhere—how strange it is for a defending NBA champion to lose its star player and Finals MVP in free agency; the question of whether Kawhi’s decamping to L.A. was fully premeditated from the moment the Spurs traded him in the summer of 2018, or a legitimate matter of 11th-hour ingenuity by Lawrence Frank and Doc Rivers to acquire Paul George as his running mate, remains open.

For some Raptors fans, that little sliver of uncertainty is a salted wound, which is why Toronto’s unexpectedly excellent start—a 16-7 record through 23 games, which would put them on pace for 57 wins—feels particularly satisfying right now, assuaging complaints that Kawhi’s ring should have had a few extra stones inserted to correspond with his being a one-man show. Obviously, no player wins a title on their own, and Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Fred VanVleet all received their share of plaudits (and in the case of VanVleet, one lonely Finals MVP vote), but the phrase used most commonly in the spring by broadcasters and analysts was “carried,” as if Kawhi were an aircraft carrier and his teammates used him to launch their attacks.

In a terrific piece that I may or may not have read to my 3-year-old daughter the other night as a bedtime story instead of Llama Llama, Kevin O’Connor broke down the reasons for the Raptors’ stubborn and unexpected resilience, citing the aggressive and innovative defense formations of head coach Nick Nurse—he who unleashed the box-and-one on Steph Curry in the Finals—and better-than-expected contributions by an unheralded group of support players (Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Chris “Bobby” Boucher, who my sources tell me got some dap from Adam Sandler during a visit to the Staples Center). Kevin’s analysis connects to what I’d been seeing from the team prior to a recent three-game losing streak redeemed (barely) by a one-point road victory over the Bulls on Monday night: an all-for-one, one-for-all philosophy that’s perfectly suited to a squad whose superstar is still in training (I bow to nobody in my love of Siakam but note that he’s looked ordinary since defenses have adjusted to him as a no. 1 option) and whose spiritual leader, Lowry, is one of the most resourceful players of his generation—another way of saying that for anybody who resides outside of the GTA, he is extremely annoying.

Carter and Leonard each in their way cast a longer shadow, but at this point, it’s probably correct to say that Lowry is the signature Raptor of all time—not in spite of that aforementioned annoyance, but because of it. He was the perfect thorny emblem for the transition from the Bryan Colangelo era—a purgatory of bad draft picks, missed opportunities, and a déjà-Vince experience with Chris Bosh, a comparable All-Star talent who similarly rediscovered his mojo on another squad—and Masai Ujiri’s ascendant administration; over the course of a few years, Lowry went from the trade block to the doghouse to All-Star mainstay, helping the Raptors to forge a scrappy identity hammered home by the us-against-the-world ethos of the We the North campaign. (In many ways, Lowry was the anti-Vince—an unflashy athlete with a familiar skill set but an iron will.)

When the Raptors acquired Leonard, Kyle teased a heel turn on social media in support of his departed BFF DeMar DeRozan, but gradually and subtly styled himself as the ideal running mate for Kawhi’s search-and-destroy two-way style; with the exception of his horrendous playoff opener against Orlando, he was the team’s steadiest supporting performer in all four rounds and played the game of his life in Oakland in Game 6 of the Finals (lost amid all the other highlights was a wild Lowry fallaway jumper in the fourth quarter that hit rim and high off the backboard before going in—a shot as fortunate as Leonard’s four-bouncer). During the Raptors’ ring ceremony, Lowry stood the tallest and received the longest ovation, betraying no irritation at being rendered the face of the franchise again by default: The one-year, $31 million contract extension he signed during training camp was a flex by ownership toward their most loyal soldier (one that still permits flexibility in terms of roster construction heading into the epochal 2021 free-agent period, which some speculate could include Toronto taking a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo). That the Raptors’ gaudy win-loss record was accomplished while Lowry missed 11 games doesn’t change the fact that their title defense depends on him.

It’s not going to be enough: The best-case scenario for the Raptors without Kawhi was always going to be as a tough out against a team with more talent, and barring massive personnel shake-ups in the East or a rash of mysterious injuries, that’s how things will play out. What I’m hoping I hear Wednesday from my fellow Torontonians is a massive, prolonged ovation for a player who earned it; anybody booing Kawhi should be booed themselves. But more importantly, it’ll be a cheer without any hidden whispers of anxiety. Just as the guy in the Clippers jersey has nothing to feel sorry about, the players wearing Raptors colors have nothing to prove that they aren’t in the process of doing; their actions on the court speak louder than words (or power rankings). Back in June, it was the Raptors who finally shut everybody else up; that’s something to cheer about.