Given the team’s up-and-down history — mostly down — Bhatia is relishing this postseason. The Raptors, the third seed in the Eastern Conference, trail the Nets by 1-0 in their best-of-seven first-round series. Game 2 is Tuesday at Air Canada Centre. “This season has been very special because nobody expected this,” said Bhatia, whose sizable commitment to the Raptors includes roughly $300,000 a year on game tickets, many of them for fellow Torontonians with South Asian roots. “Basketball has given us a way to connect to the mainstream. We might look different, but we have the same passion for the game.”
On Sunday, Kevin Garnett publicly praised the veteran guard who has fallen from his elite status in the league. “Deron’s biggest problem has been Deron. He’s very, very hard on himself, to the point where you have to pull him to the side and give him some real s–t, say some real s–t to him,” Garnett said. “When he comes out of that, he’s very hard, very, very hard to guard, very difficult to deal with, and we need him to be like that. Garnett also preached that this is Williams’ team, no matter how much he speaks. “But most importantly, man, I think he’s starting to just relax and kind of consolidate the responsibilities around here,” Garnett said. “We’ve taken some of the grit off of him, so he doesn’t have to be so talkative, but understanding that we’re following you, so how you go is how we’re going to go, and I think he’s getting more comfortable with that position.”
Saturday’s game was no exception. Williams started out fast, scoring 18 of his 24 points in the first half. In the frenzied atmosphere of Toronto’s first playoff game since 2008, Williams came out and made sure his fingerprints were all over the action. In one memorable second-quarter sequence, Williams shook Greivis Vasquez with a vicious crossover. In space, Williams was not looking to pass, nor was he about to settle for an outside jumper. Williams lowered his head, drove toward the basket and rose up for a tough floater. He took the contact. He drew the foul. He made the shot and, later, the free throw. “He was aggressive,” Lowry said. “He was really aggressive, and I think that helped him a lot.” “Early in the game, he pushed the pedal to the metal a little bit,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Got the tempo up and that helped him during the game. … When he is running like that, they are a potent team.”
Pierce scored the final seven points of that run and supplied the Nets’ last four field goals. Toronto had no answer in the battle of the bullpens. Then again, why would it? When’s the last time the Raptors had something substantial that needed closing? All of this was new for Toronto, and that inexperience showed. The only thing Pierce showed was a Mariano Rivera-type coolness down the stretch, the confidence that comes from having been there and won there before.
If the Raptors entered the series with a complex, that’s because the sixth-seeded Nets had emerged as the most popular upset pick in the postseason. The Raptors noticed, and this conventional wisdom provided them with plenty of bulletin-board material. “I think everybody looks at us that way,” Toronto big man Chuck Hayes said at Friday’s practice. “They’re not a believer in our 3-seed.” Hayes added that the reason outsiders didn’t expect much was, “There’s no TSN [The Sports Network] in the States,” and that he got a pregame haircut because his family and friends in California, Texas and Kentucky would be watching on ESPN.
“I think the whole Atlantic Division’s a rivalry, the Eastern Conference. We haven’t got to the spot yet where we can say, ‘Hey, they’re a rival.’ New Jersey’s been to the Finals before, we haven’t. A lot of teams in our division have been there, where we’re trying to get to. We’ve got to earn that.” That’s their focus right now, as it should be. Earning it. The Raptors lost Game 1, not because of Ujiri, not because of anything that was said or done off the floor. They lost because they were outplayed by a team that was not fazed by the moment, by their surroundings.
Terrence Ross had an unpleasant introduction to playoff basketball Saturday. He didn’t do much in the opening four minutes, then things got far worse. A pair of fouls four seconds apart forced the sophomore to the bench until the start of the second. Another foul limited him to three minutes in that quarter and just eight for the half. One of Toronto’s biggest offensive threats could manage only a single shot attempt in the first 24 minutes and his defence was also missed. Head coach Dwane Casey said he could tell Ross was frustrated by all of the fouls and Ross concurred. “For sure. You pick up two or three quick fouls and you can’t really do much except watch,” Ross said after looking at video of what went wrong. “It was hard to catch a rhythm, it was hard to kind of get in the flow of things. I kind of put myself in a funk.” Ross said he wasn’t nervous, but the atmosphere “was unlike anything I’ve ever been in in my life … It was unreal.”
So it begins, the game within the game, the game of in-between adjustments, revisiting the game’s basic fundamentals of rotation, moving one’s feet, matching an opponent’s physicality, finding ways to get a scorer such as DeMar DeRozan, Toronto’s leading scorer, more a chance to have a presence. When Greivis Vasquez buried his three-ball with 5:13 remaining, the Raptors were leading by one point. It would last all of one possession as Joe Johnson’s floater would regain Brooklyn its lead, an advantage the Nets did not surrender. In Game 1, the Nets were called for one foul in the game’s final quarter, while the Raptors were whistled six times. Whether it was a function of preferential treatment for a reverential group of proven veterans is debatable. The fact remains the Raptors were too perimeter happy down the stretch, more apt to take shots than attack the rim or dump the ball down low to Jonas Valanciunas. In other words, they didn’t do enough to force the officials to make a call.
It was a four-point game with 2:43 left in the game in what would eventually be a seven-point loss. The tendency is to change the starting lineup, but it’s doubtful head coach Dwane Casey will resort to this strategy. Toronto’s second unit outperformed Brooklyn’s bench and there’s no need to make any changes. Landry Fields has the length to defend either Joe Johnson or a Paul Pierce and while Fields’ offence is limited, he can be a presence on defence. Fields had the dreaded DNP-CD attached to his name on the boxscore.
Brooklyn’s second unit basically had nothing in Game 1, the team’s reserves combining for 16 points. Alan Anderson, whose career was revitalized in Toronto, made three of seven shots to lead Brooklyn’s bench with six points. Anderson, Mirza Teletovic and Marcus Thornton, went a combined 0-of-12 from three-point range. Mason Plumlee, who came of age during K.G.’s injury absence in the regular season, picked up five fouls in close to 12 minutes. Andray Blatche averaged 14.8 points in the four-game season series against the Raptors, scoring five in Game 1. He did record six rebounds, including four offensive boards. Andrei Kirilenko didn’t even see the floor.
rooklyn Borough President Eric Adams even got involved, throwing some mild shade at Ujiri. “It’s unfortunate that the Raptors’ GM felt so desperate facing against our Nets that he would throw profanity around discussing our beloved borough, but I can’t say I’m surprised,” Adams wrote in a statement. “After all, Brooklyn is a classier place. Just compare Babs to Biebs, or spend some time with their … colourful mayor. Still we spread love; it is, after all, the Brooklyn way.” Adams then made a beer bet with the aforementioned Rob Ford. “Rather than mess with verbal barbs, I say it’s ‘put up or shut up’ time, Toronto! I’m willing to send up North some of Brooklyn’s best if the Raptors can prevail, perhaps a six-pack from Brooklyn Brewery or a CD from the First Family of hip-hop. The ball is in Mayor Ford’s court to meet the challenge. Let’s go Nets!”
And while you can suggest this team shouldn’t be relying on a still-wet-behind-the-ears sophomore to provide meaningful offence in the playoffs, Ross’ contributions since the Raptors moved him into the starting five in early December are a key part of the reason the team got to 48 wins this season and won its division. But two early fouls changed everything for Ross. “You pick up two or three quick fouls and you can’t really do much except watch,” Ross said. “It was hard to catch a rhythm, it was hard to kind of get in the flow of things. I kind of put myself in a funk.”
While Carter and Bosh were the unquestioned top players on their teams, it is clear that Kyle Lowry is the engine of this particular team. The Nets threw very similar coverages at both Lowry and DeRozan, but Lowry had more — far from total, however — success. The point guard had five turnovers, but also managed 22 points and eight assists. DeRozan, meanwhile, looked paralyzed by the attention. “The coaches got on me for being too passive [on Saturday],” DeRozan said. It is pretty simple: Lowry had a little success because he is a strong ball handler with a lot of quickness. DeRozan is not a one-on-one player at this stage of his career. If he tried to channel Carter or Lowry by breaking his defender down off the dribble and cutting into the heart of the defence, it would be disastrous for the Raptors — DeRozan’s handle just is not at that level yet.
The Raptors’ opponent, Brooklyn. The New York borough is considered one of the cradles of basketball, a traditional breeding ground of star players. The Nets, with surefire Hall of Famers such as Pierce and Garnett and maximum-contract players like Williams, Joe Johnson and the injured Brook Lopez are a fine representative for the NBA’s upper class. If the Nets are a big part of the NBA’s power structure, Ujiri’s words place the Raptors as the proletariat, which will certainly be a first for owners/telecommunication giants Bell and Rogers. In other words: It is tough to envision Ujiri saying, “F— Charlotte.” It is not a coincidence, then, that the Raptors seemed perfectly on board with their boss’s potty mouth. “That should represent how we all feel,” coach Dwane Casey said.