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Raptors know chances like Game 7 don’t come around often | The Star

It was a snapshot of Toronto basketball history when the ceiling was assumed to be unlimited, the prosperity seemingly perennial.

Perhaps you’ll remember the details. Charles Oakley set the screen worthy of an offensive lineman. Dell Curry threw the on-point inbounds pass. And in that monumental instant, as Vince Carter pump-faked and jumped and fired, everything seemed possible for Toronto’s nascent NBA team. Carter was only 24 years old. He was coming off a season in which he’d be named all-NBA second team — one of the 10 best players in basketball as voted by the media. As measured by Player Efficiency Rating (PER), the all-in statistic that’s a useful gauge of one’s place in the league hierarchy, only the mighty Shaquille O’Neal ranked higher. Better things seemed sure to come.

But we all know how that Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers ended. As hard as it is to believe, that frozen-in-time corner two-pointer, which Carter clanked, turned out to coincide with Vinsanity’s competitive peak. Never again would Carter be named to an all-NBA team. Never again would he post a better PER.

Eighteen years on, as the Raptors prepare for another Game 7 against the Sixers for the right to face Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference final, it’s worth remembering one of the great lessons of that 2001 near miss. That is, chances like this are as exciting as they are rare. Though they’ll be remembered for the ages, they don’t necessarily come by the year.

Think about Carter. Having announced his intention to return for his 22nd season next fall, at age 42 he’s now a happy journeyman on track for the longest career in NBA history. But while he’s played 1,481 regular-season games and 88 playoff matches, he’s played in precisely two Game 7s, and won exactly zero.

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In other words: Seize today. Tomorrow might never come.

“It’s what we live for,” Raptors guard Danny Green was saying this past week. “It’s what we play this game for — moments like this and times like this.”

It’s what they play for. It’s what we watch for. And it’s fleeting. Think about Green. He’s played in the league 10 seasons now, almost all of them for a competitive franchise, and this will only be his fourth career Game 7, his first as a member of a team not named the San Antonio Spurs. Green’s been on the victorious side just once, and he’s worn the heartbreak of a Game 7 in a 2013 NBA final wherein he missed five of six three-pointers en route to a devastating defeat. Raptors teammate and Spurs alum Kawhi Leonard has played alongside Green in all three of those games.

Think about Toronto centre Marc Gasol. He’s played in the league 12 seasons now, and he’s only a veteran of three Game 7s, including one to get to a conference final back in 2011. All these miles into a basketball journey that’s spanned 70 playoff contests, he’s never played for the winning team in a seventh game.

Still, it’s for moments like this that Masai Ujiri acquired these guys. Leonard, who’s been Toronto’s constant all post-season, is a former NBA final MVP. Green, though he’s shot inconsistently, has a history of clutch-situation performance. Gasol, though he’s never been to an NBA final, has played in two Olympic gold-medal games and multiple European championship finals. Stack those resumes atop those of Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry, who’ve both played on the winning side in a pair of NBA Game 7s, and you’ve got a team with considerable big-stage history, albeit not together.

“It’s good. Those guys have obviously been there before,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse told reporters Saturday. “And I think the majority, or not the majority, I think some of those guys were not pleased with their play in (a Game 6 loss), starting with their effort, and next I would say their execution offensively and defensively … And again, usually what makes these guys so good, these experienced guys so good, is they always find a way to turn that stuff around.”

Considering neither Nurse nor his Philadelphia counterpart Brett Brown has ever been an NBA head coach in a seventh game, perhaps you could give Toronto the edge in Game 7 pedigree. The Sixers, as it happens, aren’t exactly brimming with firsthand know-how in the area. Philadelphia’s best player, Joel Embiid, has never played in a Game 7. Top scorer Jimmy Butler has played in one; he had nine points on 10 shots in a first-round win for the Bulls back in 2013.

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“(Success in Game 7s) doesn’t really have to do much with experience. I think it’s more with character and the way you are built,” Gasol told reporters Saturday. “If (the Sixers) are in the semifinal of the conference … that means they are pretty strong mentally and they have a really good, talented team with size. You can’t take possessions off.”

Take no possessions off, tomorrow might never come. Lowry knows these hard truths as well as anyone. A career 2-2 in Game 7s, he’s lived through the cauldron’s dichotomous extremes. He had a potential game-winner blocked at the buzzer in a crushing loss to the Nets in 2014. He led the team with a stellar 35 points in a rousing win over Miami in 2016 that vaulted Toronto to what’s still its only trip to the Eastern final.

“Game 7s are what you play for, what you work for,” Lowry said Saturday. “It’s one of the best games in your career … You get to a Game 7, you know how hard it’s going to be … That Game 7 (against) Miami, it was just about doing whatever it takes to win. I think this game it’s just working as hard as you can, leave it all out there. Like I said, we really have to win or go home.”

So it’s win or go home, get ready for Milwaukee or step into an off-season of unknowns. Maybe this will be the beginning of an unprecedented boom in basketball’s North. Maybe this will be Leonard’s first of many deep runs in a Raptors uniform. Maybe it won’t. All we know for sure is you can never know for sure. So seize today. And remember 2001, when what looked like an undeniable ascent turned out to be the top of the mountain.

Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk

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