The little hand found its way over the railing and Pascal Siakam stopped for just a second, stuck out his giant mitt, and tapped it every so gently.
That was the perfect ending to an almost perfect night for the Siakam, with a towel over his head, an almost perfect night for Scottie Barnes skipping his way to the dressing room, and for the first year coach Darko Rajakovic, and his previously struggling Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena Wednesday evening.
Maybe there be more wins like this one in this season of low expectations – a win from start to finish, dominant in almost every way, never in doubt, none of the usual NBA ebb and flows – and when it happens like this one did, for the very first time, this great, this special, there is a certain magic to it.
There was a certain magical quality to the Raptors’ 130-111 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, a win almost no one saw coming. A win with the Raptors starting the season at 1-3. A loss to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard would have made that 1-4. There’s Thursday night and Joel Embiid in Philadelphia. That would have been 1-5. Then Victor Wembayama with San Antonio, then Kyrie Irving and Nikola Jokic and Dallas, then the Boston Celtics with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Jrue Holiday.
Before you had time to take a breath, the 1-and-3 to start the season could have been 1-and-8. Just not now. Not after the absolute domination against Giannis and Lillard, more than $90 million worth of NBA talent in just two players.
Some have picked Milwaukee to play for the NBA championship. Nobody has picked Toronto. Barely anyone has them in the playoffs, let alone going anywhere that matters.
But that’s the beauty of sport at its highest. Salaries don’t win games. Predictions don’t win games. Past MVP awards don’t win games. Plans to remove starting pitchers early, written the day or so before, don’t win games.
Players win games. The Raptors starting lineup did all of that on Wednesday against the Bucks. The Toronto starters outscored the Milwaukee starters 101-68. Barnes was great. Siakam was great. The newcomer Dennis Schroeder was great. The centre, Jakob Poeltl, was great. OG Anunoby was great. And yeah, the first year coach, almost impossible to peg or get a sense of after four games, could do no wrong with every lever he pulled against the Bucks.
Rajakovic had the almost perfect answer to a question about the night being almost perfect for the Raptors, which really is what coaches do. They never see perfect. They don’t know perfect. Don Shula probably went to his grave wondering what the Miami Dolphins could have done better in the only perfect record NFL season in history.
When I asked after the game if this was as close to perfect as the Raptors can play, he said: “Not even close.”
If holding Giannis and Dame to 31 points combined isn’t perfect, it’s pretty damn close. Lillard only took nine shots and he usually takes more than that in the pre-game warmups. Giannis only took 11 shots. Barnes and Siakam took 32 shots, scoring 47 points, with 18 rebounds, 12 assists, the kind of on-court combination when combined with the defence of Anunoby, Schoeder and Poeltl, left Milwaukee looking more bottom than conference than title contenders.
There was so much to like about one night of Raptors basketball, after a spotty start to the season and a terrible home game Monday night against Lillard’s former team, Portland. It started from the opening Wednesday with Barnes, not known for fast starts through his first two seasons, coming out on fire to start the game. The Raptors took a 20-8 lead seven minutes into the game and that happened because Siakam, Barnes and OG all hit three point shots, Barnes scored 11 points in the first 15 minutes. He was defending. He was passing crisply. He was rebounding. He was creating.
And yeah, so was just about every other Raptor as the night went on.
Toronto led by 22 points at the half, won by 19 and there was never a moment, a second, an instant when it looked like the Bucks were on their way back.
This is only Game 5 of this young season, with a roster hard to fathom and a coach brand new and talent that always seems to fit. There’s no time to savour the win, even though it’s probably worth savouring. There’s Nick Nurse and the 76ers tonight, probably thrilled they no longer have James Harden to kick around. The Raptors go to San Antonio on Sunday. They play in Dallas on Wednesday. And then Boston on the Saturday the Argos play in the Eastern final.
The schedule was not their friend last night and isn’t their friend in the early season. And if there isn’t a reason to celebrate the trouncing of the Milwaukee Bucks there is certainly a lesson in all of this. There is a template: This is how the Raptors need to play, need to play together, to succeed against the big boys in the NBA.
This was a victory that won’t and can’t be forgotten.