TORONTO • History was made on Saturday night as the Toronto Raptors brought the National Basketball Association Finals to Canada for the first time.
The night did not exactly go to plan, however, as the hosts trailed the Milwaukee Bucks by 15 points with 2min 18sec remaining in the third quarter of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Kawhi Leonard even had to sit on the bench for the first 3min 30sec of the fourth quarter.
But the Raptors bared their claws to take a two-point lead in his absence and, when he returned to add seven out of his game-high 27 points, they were able to close out the series, eliminating the top-seeded Bucks with a 100-94 win.
The victory sparked scenes of delirium at the Scotiabank Arena, with celebrity rapper and the team's global ambassador Drake going berserk courtside with fist pumps, hugs and high-fives.
The party spilled over into the surrounding Maple Leaf Square, which has been christened "Jurassic Park" in honour of the Raptors' run, with tens of thousands of fans singing the national anthem "O Canada".
Fellow professional sports outfits from Toronto - Major League Baseball team Blue Jays and National Hockey League side Maple Leafs - also hailed the achievement as did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who tweeted: "It's time to bring that championship to Canada."
The win, their fourth straight after losing the opening two games, cemented a stunning comeback for a team used to post-season disappointment in their 24-year history.
Leonard, who also had a career-high 17 boards, was the architect of several clutch plays down the stretch, which teammate Kyle Lowry, who contributed 17 points, praised as "monster".
Of his fellow All-Star, the guard, who has spent the past seven years in Toronto, said: "Kawhi... brought that pedigree with him. He inspired us tonight. We beat a really good team in Milwaukee. But I'm not satisfied yet. Our goal is to win the NBA championship."
The Raptors will soak up the plaudits for now, although they know Game 1 of the NBA Finals is just three days away - something that Leonard admitted "it's not over yet (as) this is what we've been striving for all season".
On Thursday, they will take on the two-time defending NBA champions Golden State Warriors, who by then will have had a nine-day break, in Toronto.
While the Raptors won both of their regular-season games against Golden State this season, that should be little comfort in the face of the formidable challenge ahead.
The Warriors struggled against the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, but have met only mild resistance in the two rounds since.
All-Stars Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have expertly weathered the injury absences of DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant, and this is the time of year when Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP), is at his best.
Toronto will count on their own former Finals MVP in Leonard, who is in his first season with the Raptors, but most of his teammates have not been tested the way the forward has, as a late post-season regular with the San Antonio Spurs before his trade last summer.
It will be up to Lowry and the rest of their bench to summon the poise and sharp execution the Warriors have mastered.
NYTIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE