The greatest playoff game in Raptors history and the margins of life
One notch on the digit, a matter of decimals, an entire arena on its feet, the course of an entire franchise riding on the shot, a fraction of a millimeter from hitting the heart, an ax-pick to the chest after climbing the mountain — a fucking fingertip.
That was the difference. If Solomon Hill had thought to clip his fingernails before the game, or even if he had gnawed them to a fine grind on the bench like LeBron James, the outcome might have been different. If Paul George were a beat ahead, if he coughed up the rock out of a double team a sixteenth note earlier, we’d all be singing a different tune.
Who knows what wails we would have cried had George been given five more minutes — after pouring in 39 points in regulation what more was left in the tank? I could not repeat in good sanity my screeches throughout the game, my vocal chord shredded with every rip of the nylon from George’s arrows. I felt dread of the most vociferous nature when George ended a Raptors run in the second quarter, the kind where hopeful expectations are forcibly ripped out to leave behind a gaping emptiness. The cruelty with with George burned Terrence Ross, the crassness in which he tossed aside Kyle Lowry, and the precision in which George eviscerated DeMarre Carroll coming around screens. Surely, there was more venom to spew had George been given the chance.
But instead it was but a mere fingertip, the latent creases on a middle finger, the most innocuous of circumstances — that saved the Raptors.
When Hill’s shot effortlessly swished through the twine I felt my heart sink. To have come this far, to have suffered through 21 years of irrelevancy, then two first-round exits, only to return with a 56-win season, to launch a 13-point comeback in the fourth quarter, to have spent $200 on a ticket — it seemed like a devilish prank. And of all people, it was Hill, a wholly indistinguishable vagabond, a stockily built 32.4 percent shooter — this was the assassin that the Pacers had sent. He was to be 4–4 from beyond had it not been for a fingertip.
Heartbreak wouldn’t even have been a surprise. It felt like one throughout the game as the Raptors scampered in vain to will themselves against an uphill battle. Every few steps, when the zenith of even ground was within reach, the Pacers would yank it away. The Raptors were the mule and George was the capitalist puppeting the working world by a dangling carrot. We swam in uncertain waters, jerked and swirled as our heads bobbed above and below water. But we kept swimming.
Nor would heartbreak be unfamiliar. With every icy 3-pointer that soaked my bones, I found myself thinking of all the moments to come before. I thought of Vince Carter’s fadeaway rimming out. I thought of Jose Calderon’s turnover. I thought of Paul Pierce’s block. I thought of Bradley Beal calling Kyle Lowry a punk then proceeding to punk him. I thought I had seen it before.
But I hadn’t. I hadn’t seen the Raptors play as hard as they did in the fourth quarter. I hadn’t seen the Raptors gnash their teeth and bite the bullet — not quite like that. To hold the Pacers to just nine points, turning them over seven times, while running coherent offenses that prized ball movement over mindless isolation. I saw the Raptors reach their absolute potential.
With that I saw Terrence Ross make a clutch basket (we’re talking about Terrence fucking Ross over here). I saw Lowry draw a charge on George. I saw Bismack Biyombo rip down rebound after rebound. I saw Lowry torpedo himself into outer space, freed from the weighty shackles of surplus carbohydrates and frictioned fats, to keep possession alive and preserve a precarious two-point lead.
I saw Norman Powell, a stone-faced second-round rookie, sport a Superman cape, rip George of the basketball near halfcourt, then soar through the air for a powerful one-hand dunk to render the deficit no more. I had an out-of-body experience in that moment — so much so that I had even forgotten that I, like 15,000 around me at the ACC, was wearing a cartoonishly ugly beaver on my chest. Fuck that, it didn’t matter to me anymore. I was awash in the moment soaking in something I had never seen.
And yet it all circles back to a fingertip that would have rendered everything moot. All the chest-thumping, the floor-stamping, the balloon-banging — it would have all been for naught. A franchise turned on a dime with that shot, a dozen editors’ deadline stories dashed, a city’s confusing clash with identity and validation capitulated.
It had me thinking as I sauntered to the subway hours after the game, when I sank giddily into the sullied velvet of the TTC seats, as I plugged in headphones in a failed effort to drown out the fading echoes of deafening “LET’S-GO-RAP-TORS” chants, that these are the margins of life. And that despite countless hours poured into decomposing a simple game consisting of two nets, one ball, and 10 players into a distilled system that I can comprehend and predict, that I would never have counted on it all coming down to a fingertip, and I never could have.