The Toronto Raptors earned their first win in the Eastern Conference Finals by way of a double-overtime thriller to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3.
The most important game is always the next one, but trailing 2-1 in the series bares much more significance for Game 4.
Yes, it's vital that the Raptors tie things up to make it a best-of-three series to reach the NBA Finals, but there's more to it than that.
It's hard to say that a Game 4, even in the Conference Finals, is more important than that Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, and it's not. It's close - closer than you might think - but a loss in the Conference Semifinals would have stamped an even bigger question mark on this offseason than there would be if the Raptors were to fall at this stage in the playoffs.
Reaching the Conference Finals is encouraging, but the moves of this past offseason were not made to get to this stage and fail.
The Raptors didn't trade away perhaps the most beloved player in franchise history at the drop of a hat to lose in the Conference Finals. They acquired Kawhi Leonard because he's the type of player they felt would take them to the next step in competing for a championship. Leonard has certainly done more than his fair share to make that happen, but should Toronto fall short, would this season truly feel any different than previous seasons?
There's a lot riding on this next game, but what exactly is at stake?
Going down 3-1... obviously
This isn't rocket science - trailing 2-1 and losing Game 4 would mean you're down 3-1. But what's the consequence of going down 3-1?
Their backs would be against the wall. Only 11 teams in NBA history have came back from a 3-1 deficit. Three of those 11 times have come in the last five years, but only two of those 11 teams to complete the unlikely comeback had to win two of the three final games on the road.
So the Raptors would have to not only become the 12th team to ever come back 3-1, but also defy the odds of being only the third team to do it by way of winning two games, including a Game 7, on the road.
And to make things even more difficult, they'd have to do it against a team that hasn't lost three games in a row all season. In fact, the Bucks only lost back-to-back games once and only two teams (the Phoenix Suns and Oklahoma City Thunder) were able to beat them more than one time.
It would become a nearly impossible task for the Raptors to overcome if they were to drop Game 4 to the Bucks at home.
A shot at dethroning the Warriors
Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals is the furthest the Raptors have made it in the franchise's 24-year history. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers denied Toronto a shot at their first ever NBA Finals back in 2016.
With how competitive this team was all season, a trip to the NBA Finals never seemed out of the question. And it still doesn't, as long as they take Game 4.
Reaching the NBA Finals would be a major accomplishment for this franchise, especially with the steps they took this past offseason to try and get there. What's awaiting them in The Finals makes it all that much more important.
The Golden State Warriors are in the midst of one of the most dominant runs in NBA history. We're in the presence of arguably the greatest team ever assembled and they've reached their fifth consecutive NBA Finals, something that hasn't been done since Bill Russell's Celtics in the 1950s and 1960s.
It couldn't be a better story for the Raptors - a franchise that's never been there facing off against a franchise that's become a regular at this stage.
And with the way things are lining up for the Warriors this offseason with Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins all owning their own decision to sign wherever they please, this could be the last we see of the Golden State dynasty, win or lose.
The Raptors would have a chance to cement their place in NBA history with a shot at dethroning the champs. Even with a loss on that stage and against that team, the Raptors would be forever linked to one of the most talked about teams in league history. Not many teams get that opportunity.
Also, a trip to the NBA Finals only to fall short to a dominant dynasty that might disband this offseason wouldn't be the worst factor in...
This is a cloud that's hovered over the Raptors all season even if it wasn't always in the forefront.
Leonard's decision this offseason could alter the franchise's next decade for all we know. And you'd have to assume, the further the Raptors go, the better.
It seems like Leonard has thoroughly enjoyed his time in Toronto, even if it's difficult to truly get a solid read beyond the tea leaves. The team has been competitive and the All-Star forward is playing some of the best basketball of his career. He's absolutely dominated this entire postseason and when his supporting cast steps up, the Raptors have usually won.
He's also now the author of what will go down as one of the most memorable shots in NBA postseason history.
Outside of that shot, Toronto's fate is so directly tied to the degree of which Leonard's teammates step up can't be undersold.
That's what makes this Game 4 additionally important - the Raptors have to continue fighting and his teammates need to step up. They need to make this series as interesting as possible to instill a belief that they really had what it takes to get to The Finals and have a legitimate shot at winning a title.
Because if Leonard elects to resign with Toronto this offseason, he's essentially vowing to run it back with the same team as there isn't much roster wiggle room to add other pieces. Marc Gasol has a player option for $25.6 million while Danny Green is also an unrestricted free agent which means there's no guarantee that two of Leonard's most dependable running mates will be running it back in The Six.
It won't be until 2020 that the Raptors have cap space to bring in other free agents, so barring other trades, Leonard would be working with the same group of guys for one more season before the Raptors can sign pieces to fill in around him.
It's crucial that the Raptors keep this season going as long as possible because if it ends abruptly and Kawhi walks, the future of the team would never be more uncertain.
Game 4 is far more than just another game.
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