By Adam Clements
Adam is a new site contributor at The Unsportsmen - You can follow Adam on Instagram for dope NBA content.
On February 12th, 2000, The Toronto Raptors Vince Carter inspired a new generation of kids to pick up a basketball and fly.
In one of the truly great Slam Dunk Competitions in the history of NBA All-Star Weekends, the 2000 edition belonged to ‘Half Man, Half Amazing’ Vince Carter alongside his cousin and Raptors teammate, scoring maestro Tracy McGrady. Both were clad in Toronto’s now iconic, yet at the time much reviled ‘Dino’ jersey, quite candidly described by some players as the ‘Barney-ass jersey for the Barney-ass team’ in reference to the painfully memorable friendly purple dinosaur of the silver screen. Vince put on one of the most electrifying shows in sport, and the defining moment, while Shaquille O’Neal and co watched on with camcorders in hand, was his absurd through the legs alley-oop jam (eastbay dunk) serviced by a bounce pass from McGrady.
The building imploded, the crowd going bananas, and Carter, with a simple gesture echoed TV commentator Kenny ‘The Jet’ Smith’s commentary, mouthing to the camera “it’s over!”
GAME FOUR AT ORACLE
It wasn’t meant to end like this. The Oracle Arena is one of the most iconic venues in the NBA, standing alongside Madison Square Garden and Boston’s TD Garden as recognisable landmarks in NBA architecture. While both Gardens have been razed, renovated and rebuilt, the fondly revered “Roaracle” stands as the oldest original arena serving an NBA team, the West Coast’s NBA’s answer to a roaring SEC college gym.
With the Warriors heading to San Francisco and a new arena next season, we may have witnessed the last NBA action at The O. As the venue transitions back to a concert arena, Durant may have dunked his last dunk, paving the way for Drake to indulge on the ultimate revenge tour over the Summer - expect to see Fred VanVleet on stage dropping bars arm-in-arm with Drake. The Raptors have starved the Warriors of their identity, becoming the first team in the Steve Kerr era to go 3-0 at Oracle in a season and leaving Warriors fans to farewell their spiritual home.
The Warriors burst out the gates early in Game 4 on their home floor, and with Klay Thompson and Kevon (with an O) Looney coming back, both hobbled and reportedly having begged to coaching staff to let them play, they certainly looked the more likely of the two teams early on. Kawhi Leonard had to steady the ship for the Raptors with 14 of their 17 first quarter points, keeping the deficit within reach, a tough task in such a hostile building at this stage of the playoffs.
Now let me just say now that Kawhi is downright terrifying. If news this week out of US publication The Athletic is to be believed, outlining Kawhi’s version of ‘trash talk’, then I have no choice but to label Kawhi as an automaton. The man is simply not human. Simply locking guys up and murmuring “Nope”, “Buckets” and “I’m mad”, as though his internal hard drive is just churning out Google Maps phrases, Kawhi’s on court persona and lack of social media presence have made him a unicorn to savour in today’s NBA, a dangerous one though. Like a villain in a Stephen King novel, the meticulous, expert precision with which he is slowly dismantling the Warriors has driven a stake through their quest for a coveted 3-peat, and the final hammer blow is coming. This Grim Reaping Raptor now stands on the verge of having toppled 2 of the NBA’s modern dynasties, toppling the Big 3 in Miami in 2014 and now within Klaw’s reach of taking down the record breaking Warriors with the methodical know how of a serial killer.
With the game in the balance, and the Warriors enjoying a slim lead that by all accounts should have been much higher (the Raptors on hit 34% of their first half shots), Kawhi came out after halftime and hit 2 back to back 3 pointers to give the Raptors the lead, and the audible groans of the Oracle crowd typified the attitude that we would soon see out of the Warriors team. The bench play of both teams was always going to be key in this series, especially with Kevin Durant not playing, and Serge Ibaka was the epitome of grind in this game. 20 points, 2 blocks and a burning desire to right the wrongs of 3 years ago, when, while playing for Oklahoma City, his team was eliminated in historic fashion by the Warriors in the West Finals. His ferocity in the 2nd half helped the Raptors go on a run and when Klay Thompson received further treatment on his hamstring early in the 3rd quarter, the end was nigh.
Steph Curry has always been to me, the little kid that hangs out with the bully at school, nitpicking, laughing and being a punchable target before the bully comes over to sort out the riff raff. With the bully, Kevin Durant, off the floor and in the locker room with a strained calf and little hope of a return this season, Curry has had to stick up for himself, and this game did not look good on his midterm report. As the 4th quarter lengthened and the stakes grew higher, Curry crumbled, crippled by a suffocating defense, a lack of outlet support and simply exhausted by having to beat up everyone on his own 48 hours earlier in game 3. The once confident, assured and free-flowing shooting game of his became stuttered, to the point that he even hesitated to go for a 3, his bread and butter and something he hasn’t had to worry about since he was single – shoutout Ayesha.
The Warriors, a team with championship pedigree and an undeniable thirst for success, as well as an impregnable culture of being the best, are finally the vulnerable prey that has been so well protected, with a soft underbelly of below average role players masked by the absolute superstar power of their starting 5. They simply don’t possess the depth to deal with the Raptors bench, and even their luster off the court is started to lose its shine. When the ever charismatic Steve Kerr was asked before game 4 about the availability of Kevin Durant, his blunt reply of, “He’s either going to play or he’s not. So tonight he’s not playing.” This isn’t the sort of response from a coach who has total confidence in his group, one that has enjoyed the veil of having a superior roster to all others in the NBA. This is the response of a coach who is sick of the scrutiny, and the legacy of his team is now at stake without their biggest star.
Durant’s injury is weighing on the mental stability of this team, with the team being kept in the dark or sick of lying to the press about the nature of the injury. Durant hasn’t watched from the bench while injured as his teammates Klay and Boogie have throughout this season and these playoffs, while on the other end of the floor Fred VanVleet received 7 stitches and dental rearrangement in a tangle with Shaun Livingston (who looks like he works in an inner city Detroit car wash), but still returned to the bench to support his team. The team looks fractured and unstable, and the Raptors are circling.
At the other end, when the final buzzer sounded, Kawhi Leonard had 36 points, and the team’s demeanor, as it has been throughout this series, was anything but excited. A Nick Nurse and Kawhi Leonard level of professionalism. This team is one win away from winning the NBA Finals! Save for a few fist bumps, the Raptors squad had all the enthusiasm of a funeral, and their message in pre and post game talks with the media is clear. “We haven’t won anything yet”. This team from the northern side of the US border is about to “do something” in Game 5 I feel, to be forever etched in history. This special group has gone into Oracle ready to do what no other has done before them, and bring a title back to Canada.
They’re going home, and the Larry O’Brien is coming with them.
BARNEY ASS RAPTORS
After ‘Barney-ass’ Raptor Vince Carter hit his first dunk in the 2000 Slam Dunk Competition, TNT commentator Kenny Smith emphatically pronounced “Let’s go home”, to the crowd, foreseeing the fate many had known to the true.
The rabid crowd in this particular arena went ballistic that day. In which NBA arena was this Slam Dunk Contest held? That would be none other than Oracle Arena. Carter would win the Slam Dunk Competition that year and be forever etched in history.
Editors note: To close the loop with the Vince Carter parallels. Vince meant so much to the city of Toronto for a short period of time. As a 1995 expansion team, the Raptors have won nothing, save for a few division titles which mean less than tennis doubles title. Vince Carter was responsible for the Raptors only success, no matter how tenuous and now to 2019, a new young, quietly spoken superstar has a chance to deliver what Vince and McGrady could never.
This year, it’s the Raptors turn. They’re going home.
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