NBA Playoffs 2019: Long, improbable road makes Raptors' first Finals much more meaningful

TORONTO -- Kyle Lowry put his NBA Finals hat on before any of his teammates as he hopped through a crowd of photographers, making a beeline for the baseline where his family awaited him. He lifted up each of his sons, Karter and Kameron, somehow still gripping the game ball and his Eastern Conference champions T-shirt, then enveloped both of them in a group hug seven years in the making. 

Karter was not quite 11 months old when Lowry was traded to the Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2012 for Gary Forbes and a first-round pick. Back then, the point guard thought he would put in his two years in Toronto and bolt in free agency, especially after Jose Calderon took his starting spot. He didn't bother making friends with his teammates, and he packed his bags when a trade to the New York Knicks appeared to be all but done in his second season north of the border.

The Raptors had not made the playoffs since 2008 and had not won a series since Alvin Williams hit a clutch jumper at Madison Square Garden in 2001. Williams, a fellow Philadelphia-born and Villanova-schooled point guard, famously told Lowry that if he led them back there, he would never be forgotten. Lowry did exactly that, an improbable feat on a team that was almost blown up. Even more improbable, though, is that he is still in Toronto, by far the longest-tenured Raptor, a five-time All-Star and symbol of persistence for a franchise and fan base that have spent 24 seasons dreaming of this day. His heartbreaking playoff losses now look like stepping stones. 

"It's been the best seven years of my career," Lowry told TNT's Ernie Johnson after Toronto beat the Milwaukee Bucks 100-94 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, after Drake rubbed coach Nick Nurse's shoulders (again), after The Raptor made confetti angels on the court, after about 20,000 people chanted Lowry's name and he called them the best fans in the league. 

"He's witnessed it first-hand," Williams told CBS Sports. "Kyle's career has taken a big leap since he came here. Kyle's always had the talent. He's always had the work ethic. But now, you get to a point where it's the right timing. The organization took off. His game took off, becoming an All-Star, becoming an Olympian. So everything that Kyle has reached, a lot of things that Kyle has reached to a high level, it's come in this city and this country. He's always going to be cherished. He's always going to be embraced and loved. So I'm glad he got a chance to experience it. I'm glad he's gone through with it."

Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet
The Raptors are going to the NBA Finals. USATSI

Williams started in the Raptors' last game at SkyDome, first game at the Air Canada Centre and first playoff victory. He was at the recently renamed Scotiabank Arena as an analyst for Sportsnet. Every time he is in Toronto, people talk to him about the shot at the Garden. Unlike Lowry, he never made an All-Star team, but Raptors fans remember how he sacrificed his body playing through injuries. They remember how hard he played. 

"When you're finished playing, a lot of people forget," Williams said. "You're just an old, washed-up player. But when I come back here, they still show the love, they still show appreciation. It means a lot to me. It's rewarding to me to come here, bring my family back here and my friends back here and see that appreciation. I'm glad that these players get the opportunity to have that."

Fred VanVleet is Williams' type of guy, an undrafted underdog who, two years ago, earned Toronto's final roster spot. Against the Bucks, he fought through a serious shooting slump to become a playoff hero. In the last three games of the series, he shot 17 for 29, including 14 for 17 from 3-point range, despite an almost total lack of sleep caused by the birth of Fred VanVleet Jr. in between Games 3 and 4.

VanVleet knew he was counted out, and he is proud that he bounced back in the most important games of his career. He is proud of the team for breaking through after two seasons ended in sweeps and Masai Ujiri's front office boldly acquired Kawhi Leonard, a superstar who immediately gave the Raptors a real chance. 

"You can see the confidence of the city growing," VanVleet told CBS Sports. "When I first got here, it was always like, 'These guys always choke in the playoffs.' Obviously with the trade, it kind of changed the narrative of what we're going to be as a team. And you gotta give Kawhi a lot of credit for that, obviously. But we got a lot of guys on this team that are proud, prideful guys, and are going to change the narrative of what this team has been."

Every other day, VanVleet talks to DeMar DeRozan. He remains close with Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl, too. In the first round against Orlando, Jonas Valanciunas showed up. Calderon took in Game 7 against Philadelphia. On Saturday, Bismack Biyombo sat next to "Superfan" Nav Bhatia and received a raucous ovation, no doubt because he pulled down a single-game franchise-record 26 rebounds the last time the Raptors were in the conference finals. No one has been better than Leonard in these playoffs, but there is a long list of players who contributed to Toronto's rise to relevance.

"Those guys are just as key as anything," VanVleet said. "You gotta honor those guys, the guys who paved the way, who took the arrows and the bumps and the bruises, who built this program up from the ground up, literally. And we're just here in the position to be able to take it to the next level. And that's how you honor those guys, to go out there and take it another notch farther than what they did."

Crazy Raptors fans
Toronto is on the league's biggest stage for the first time. USATSI

Marc Gasol can imagine how this feels for Lowry, even though the center has been a Raptor only since February. For 10 1/2 years, Gasol anchored the Memphis Grizzlies, becoming a local icon along with Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, the group that defined the grit-and-grind era. Gasol experienced a 24-win season, a conference finals loss and everything in between. He never wanted to leave, but desperately wanted to win.

"Seeing the franchise grow and building it from the ground up, there's no better feeling," Gasol said. "Coming here and being here for a couple months, it's a pretty good feeling, too. Trust me."

From Damon Stoudamire to Charles Oakley, Tracy Murray to Tracy McGrady, Doug Christie to Patrick Patterson, former Raptors tuned in on Saturday to see if this group could take them somewhere new. Equally rapt, though, were Memphians watching Marc. 

"In Memphis, I still feel like I have a big community down in the Mid-South that is following us and supporting us," Gasol said. "And every teammate that I had in Memphis -- Tony, Zach and Mike especially -- they are here, too."

Over the course of the season, Toronto has turned into a team worthy of out-of-town support. Defensively, the Raptors are menacing, successfully grinding Sixers and Bucks halfcourt offenses to a halt. Offensively, they are somehow still improving, having worked all year to become more cohesive. They are going to the Finals, though, because they are resilient. Toronto trailed by 15 points near the end of the third quarter in Game 6, but kept coming, just like it did after going down 2-1 in its series against Philadelphia and 2-0 against Milwaukee. Those challenges -- and the split-seconds before Leonard's legendary series winner bounced in, and all of the stress contained in Game 3's overtime periods -- explain why vets insist that every single playoff win is hard.

Under the bright lights of the Finals, the anxiety of the fans, the wounds from past defeats and the uncertainty regarding Leonard's future only make for a better story. Years from now, the Raptors will want to look back at this, VanVleet said, and that's probably true regardless of what happens against the Golden State Warriors and in free agency. They're not as focused on franchise records and franchise firsts as fans are, but they understand that, for a team that was considered a joke until relatively recently, for an organization that has baked being overlooked into its marketing plan, this moment is monumental. 

"We know," VanVleet said. "You're in a position where you see it and feel it so much. But we'll worry about that after the season, after we reach our goal. We know what it means. And that's a little extra motivation." 

CBS Sports Writer

James Herbert is somewhat fond of basketball, feature writing and understatements. A former season-ticket holder for the expansion Toronto Raptors, Herbert does not think the NBA was better back in the... Full Bio

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