When the dust finally settled and the Toronto Raptors had preserved a 99-97 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers—which came on the heels of Kyle Lowry’s remarkably clutch game-winning shot—a few excited observers took to the Twitterverse to suggest that Lowry had just manufactured a “bat flip” moment. There are no bats in basketball (unless of course you’re Manu Ginobili), but the term “bat flip” is now representative of any moment in Toronto sports that comes within the orbit of greatness that will forever surround José Bautista’s earth-shattering home run.
Lowry’s shot certainly wasn’t the series-clinching dagger that Bautista’s three-run homer was, but there were certain elements in play that heightened the significance of what could’ve just been a regular old Friday night game in February. These were the Cleveland Cavaliers in town, the only team currently positioned atop of the Raptors in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and a squad going to war with all of its key players in the lineup. With Demar DeRozan experiencing some minor sickness, Lowry put the Raptors on his back and outplayed LeBron freaking James, who—as time expired—could only muster up an airball in his attempt to answer Lowry’s bucket on the other end.
The shot and the win were special milestones for a team trying to assert itself as a true contender. Despite playing with home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs the last two years, the Raptors have been exposed both times by teams who proved that Toronto’s regular season success didn’t mean squat. Or as Raptor-killer/troller Paul Pierce so eloquently put it, they didn’t have the indefinable “it” quality that teams who advance in the postseason apparently possess.
On Friday night though, it felt as if “it” may have finally arrived. Though there’s a long way to go until the playoffs—and lots of opportunity for things to unravel—the Raptors are firmly entrenched in second place and appear poised to win the franchise’s first playoff series since the Vince Carter era. In fact, the way Toronto is playing, a showdown with the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals is the likeliest possible scenario to expect right now.
Let’s imagine things play out that way. If the Raps do indeed face Cleveland with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line, it’ll be the second time in seven months that a Toronto sports franchise will be one round away from a championship series. The team who already did it is of course the 2015 Blue Jays, a squad that #cameTOgether after the trade deadline and made an invigorating run to the ALCS, where they were dispatched in six games by the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals entered the 2015 season widely acknowledged as favourites to win the AL Pennant and earn the opportunity to avenge their 2014 World Series loss. Cleveland came into this campaign with a similar forecast, viewed as a lock to represent the East in the Finals where it would fight for a more satisfying result than the six-game series loss that saw the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors crowned as champs.
The Raptors’ most recent victory shouldn’t cause anyone to necessarily overturn the assumption that Cleveland will win the East, but it definitely sends a message that Toronto is capable of giving the Cavaliers a legitimate scare. Especially when you consider that the Raptors were playing on Friday without their most highly proven defensive player (DeMarre Carroll), a player who will likely be healthy for the postseason.
Assuming everything holds to form from now until May and the CLE-TOR showdown happens, the Raps would be in the exact same boat that the Jays were in last season—right down to the circumstances of the opponent waiting in the conference championship round. It’s funny that the 2015-16 Raptors have stumbled into this situation, because it bears an uncanny resemblance to the way in which the 2013-14 Raptors followed in the footsteps of the 2012-13 Toronto Maple Leafs. Like those Leafs, the 2013-14 Raps were an upstart team that wasn’t expected to be much of a playoff threat coming into its campaign. Neither squad hit its stride until midway through the season (in the Raptors’ case because of the Rudy Gay trade, in the Leafs’ case because a dumb lockout prevented everyone from playing until midway through the season’s typical timeline) but both ended up finishing in the middle of the playoff eligible standings. They each played first-round series against veteran teams and took those teams to Game 7, where Toronto proceeded to lose in crushing fashion both times.
That year, the Raptors managed to duplicate everything the Leafs had accomplished—with stunning precision. Hell, for a while during that batshit crazy seventh inning against the Texas Rangers in Game 5 of the ALDS, it looked like the Jays were ready to make it a perfect trifecta (in back-to-back-to-back years) of heartbreaking losses in elimination games for Toronto’s three big franchises. But instead, things finally swung the other way. Josh Donaldson’s RBI happened and fans could breathe again; Bautista’s bat flip happened and fans went nuts; Roberta Osuna closed things out and Toronto no longer had to spend an agonizing seven months wondering if any of its teams would ever get over the playoff series hump again.
For this generation of Toronto sports fans, the 2015 Jays waded into completely foreign territory. They could do no wrong in the ALCS because they had already cleared the elusive hurdle, just as the 2012-13 Leafs had when they qualified for the postseason and broke the city’s brutal five year playoff drought (the Argonauts are great but being a playoff qualifier isn’t quite the same type of accomplishment in a nine-team league).
Unfortunately for this year’s Raptors (given their likely ceiling), they once again find themselves as the follow-up to a groundbreaking act that they probably won’t be able to top. It’s like releasing a blockbuster space film the year after Gravity comes out (*cough* Interstellar *cough*). Raptor optimists may be encouraged by the fact that the squad won its season series against the Cavaliers (2-1), but pessimists will point out that the Jays also won theirs against Kansas City (4-3) and it didn’t mean anything in the seven games that truly mattered.
Yet, despite the bleak odds of crossing another major Toronto sports checkpoint this spring, 6ix dwellers should heed the wise words of Natasha Beddingfield: “Today is where your book begins/ The rest is still unwritten.” In the NBA, where so much rides on the status of a small concentration of players, underdogs are always just an injury, lucky break, or balls-to-the-wall effort away from coming out on top. The 2015-16 Raps could see their season unfold in a number of ways, anything from another first-round loss to a Cinderella Finals run. Friday’s win was no fluke, but it wasn’t indicative of an Eastern Conference power shift either. The Cavs proved a lot last postseason, the Raptors haven’t proven anything yet. Bowing out to Cleveland in Round 3 might not be as satisfying for Toronto sports fans in a post-2015 Jays world, but as they also know all too well, it could be a hell of a lot worse.