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Raptors build momentum one defining moment at a time | The Star

The second Toronto Raptors game I ever covered was in Detroit at the old Palace of Auburn Hills, a madhouse, the deciding Game 5 of the first round in 2002. Toronto was down three, but Toronto’s Chris Childs forgot the score. He thought it was four. His hurried, off-balance three-pointer missed, and Keon Clark smoked a cigarette in the shower. You couldn’t forget it. It was the night Childs lost his place in the plot, and for a long time the Raptors never seemed to truly find it.

Until now. Stay in the moment: That was what Kawhi Leonard preached every step along the way as the Raptors marched to the precipice of a title, no matter the situation. Stay in the moment. There were times when the Raptors were pushed to the edge, to the hard places. There have been moments where they pushed to the edge of the biggest joy. Stay in the moment, Kawhi said, and they echoed him. Stay here, now.

“Every day isn’t given to you,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, before Toronto’s shot at a championship against the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 Monday night. “You wake up every day, you just should be happy you wake up every day. People ask me how I’m doing and I say: I’m great, I’m alive. That’s kind of the staying-in-the-moment thing that I’ve always lived by … We just kind of made that the forefront of our team.”

That’s what they had done, all the way to the edge of a different world entirely. A playoff season is a series of lifetimes — in hockey, Steven Stamkos once said that at the end of a Stanley Cup run he couldn’t even remember the regular season.

So when you go back with this team, you could go to Game 1’s loss against Orlando, though there was no panic, and that was quickly righted. You could go to Game 4 in Philadelphia, after they were blown off the floor in Game 3 in a madhouse: the Raptors were on the edge of their season for the first time, and responded. Kawhi, with his mammoth three in the final minute over Joel Embiid, responded best. Remember that? He was asked if he thought he had controlled the game.

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“I really don’t think like that when I’m playing,” he said. “It’s just really just every possession, just trying to win.”

That’s how they have played, almost all the time. When they were in Game 7 against Philadelphia, season on the line, it wasn’t just Kawhi: Serge Ibaka played 29 fearless minutes, roiling the offensive glass, and the defence locked in even as almost everybody’s shots weren’t falling. Remember The Shot? Of course you do. That was a moment, then another, then another, until Kawhi’s series-winning shot — the shot that he had to dribble over half the floor to find, and that Embiid misjudged and had to double-half-jump to contest — bounced four times and went in.

Stay in the moment. Coach Nick Nurse talked about how tough Toronto played in Game 1 in Milwaukee, even though they lost. He said, “We got on the plane the next day and had to play less than 48 hours after that. I thought we came out and played unbelievably tough. The ball didn’t bounce our way that night. We didn’t get any breaks. But I thought we outplayed them for the course of the game. And then when we went down two to them, our guys were like: We’re OK.”

They did it in double overtime in Game 3 against Milwaukee, where a loss meant the end of the season, more or less. They stayed focused after winning Game 3 in Oakland, and rose to their finest level in the third quarter of Game 4. It was something close to final form for a team that has been searching for its best self all season.

So Game 5 was a lot of things. It was, for some, a chance to reflect.

“I just try to enjoy the journey,” said Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson, who has been a key part of this three-title team. “It’s been a very long one since we have been on this championship run. It started way back, 2014. You wish to have no end in sight, but everything that’s great always comes to an end. So whether that’s (Monday) or four years from now, you never know. That’s the beauty of life.

“You just got to go out and enjoy every minute with the group of guys you got, because in professional sports nothing is ever guaranteed. You can look back on any professional league and see that. There are so many examples in the history of the sport. So that’s what keeps me in the present moment.”

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And for some, it was a chance to go through the same steps, the same mindset, the same ruthless competitiveness that these Raptors have developed, all season long.

“Just stay in the same routine and just focus what’s in front of me,” said Kawhi. “Obviously, human beings, we do think in the future. Been thinking in the future since the beginning of the season, just trying to get to this point. You just got to stay current and stay in your routine, be patient and not rush anything.

“I think we have been embracing it this whole time. Just enjoying the support and the energy that (Raptors fans are) bringing to the team. With that being said, they help us stay focused in the moment. You just got to be patient. Don’t rush anything. Stay focused on what we’re doing. Just take it a minute at a time.

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard gets the basket and one as the Toronto Raptors play the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.The stage was set for the Raptors in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Monday night.

“You always want to play great defence and make a shot. It’s pretty much just a title over it right now. Just go out and play. Play it, enjoy it and whatever happens, we’ll see the results.”

That’s how Raptors fans needed to think, too. This is Toronto, so just live it, every moment, all the parts. They don’t come around often, and might never again.

Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur

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