The noise was so loud you could feel it — the sound crawling under your skin and pulsating inside your chest.
Before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night, the fans sang every word of their national anthem, true patriot love dripping off each lyric.
During the game, they watched with amazement as Kawhi Leonard undid a miserable start for his team and pulled the Raptors back late in the third quarter. They roared with excitement when Toronto finally pulled ahead and held their breath when the Milwaukee Bucks made one final push.
With seconds left, they grabbed their phones and held them up. And when it ended, with red confetti in the air and the trophy held high in Leonard’s hands, they erupted.
Canada had won. The Raptors, the only team in the NBA that plays for an entire country, will face the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals beginning Thursday night in Toronto.
“Wild [expletive],” a voice echoed outside the Raptors’ locker room. “I don’t think I would ever see this in my life.”
In the 100-94 series-clinching win, Leonard had 27 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and two blocks. Pascal Siakam had 18 points, including the two biggest free throws of his career. Marc Gasol made only two field goals, but both were key three-pointers from the right corner. And Kyle Lowry, the player who can do the most while his numbers show the least, walked off the court with 17 points, eight assists and the game ball tucked under his arm — one final loose ball he corralled.
Getting here, 24 years into the life of this franchise, hasn’t been easy.
Vince Carter, who would eventually leave, missed a shot that would have sent Toronto to the conference finals in 2001. Tracy McGrady, who would eventually leave, couldn’t get the Raptors beyond the first round. And teams led by Lowry and DeMar DeRozan could never get past LeBron James, losing to him three straight years in the postseason.
It wasn’t working.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri made three of the biggest decisions in the team’s history in a span of 69 days. He fired Dwane Casey two days after Casey’s peers voted him the league’s top coach. A month later, he hired Nick Nurse, a man with more time spent coaching in the British Basketball League than he had in the NBA.
And a month after that, he traded DeRozan, maybe the most popular Raptor in the team’s history, to the San Antonio Spurs for what could end up as only one year of Leonard, who can become a free agent after the season.
“We did the same things over and over again. I think sometimes that might be the definition of insanity,” Ujiri told The Times in late September. “Unfortunately, these were the changes we had to make to change things up.”
The changes mattered. They mattered in how the team approached a 2-0 deficit to the Bucks to begin the series. They mattered when Nurse decided to change the on-court matchups and put Leonard on Bucks star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo — who was held to 21 points on seven-for-18 shooting Saturday. And they mattered as Leonard has done everything over the course of a six-game series to get his team to the Finals — a career high in minutes one night, a career best in assists another and a playoff high in rebounds the next.
“I worked so hard to get to this point with the season I had last year,” said Leonard, who was limited to nine games last season by a quadriceps injury and experienced tension with the Spurs regarding their handling of it. “I ended up coming here with a great group of guys, a lot of talent. And I just strived with them every day. ... Now we’re here and it’s exciting.”
The celebration inside Scotiabank Arena and in the Toronto streets continued long after the final buzzer Saturday night. Players put on commemorative hats and shirts and clutched the conference championship trophy.
But as the Raptors filed into their locker room as conference champions for the very first time in a country that’s had NBA basketball for less than a quarter of a century, strength and conditioning coach Jon Lee’s voice climbed above all the others.
“Four more,” he repeated as each player walked into the room. “Four more wins.”