As my friend Albert and I left our seats in the upper bowl of the Barclays Center to go home after Friday’s loss, I started thinking about how I would write about my experience in Brooklyn this past weekend. I kept coming back to two sound clips from earlier in the series.
The first was Paul Pierce shouting “that’s why they got me here” at the end of Game 1, pounding his chest in celebration after hitting a series of clutch shots to put the Raptors away in the fourth quarter. At halftime of Game 3, I had a chance to walk over to the media section to chat with David Roth of SB Nation and Howard Megdal of Sports on Earth. One of the topics that came up was the composition of the Brooklyn Nets fanbase. Despite having decades of history as the New York and later New Jersey Nets in the ABA and the NBA, this is essentially a new experience for most Nets fans in the arena. They are, in essence, going through their first experiences as basketball fans rooting for their home team. And yet, despite the newness of it all, the franchise is in win-now mode. Pierce’s declaration in game one is very much an acknowledge of that very fact. Him and Garnett were acquired in the off-season to bring the experience necessary for this talented team who squandered a Game 7 at home in round one last year to Chicago.
There is no long-term team building with this Brooklyn team. They exist for the present, and operate in this stoic and prestige manner, from the black and white color scheme, to owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s penchant to spend his way to a championship, to the Hublot clock that greets you as you walk into the Barclays Center, and the many other corporatized hang outs inside (hey, look, it’s a barber shop sponsored by GQ!). The Nets fan base, even in its infancy stage of existence in Brooklyn, expect this team to succeed, to compete with the Miami Heat in round two, and to re-align its resources year in and year out to challenge for the title.
On Friday, despite a valiant comeback effort in the fourth quarter from the Raptors, the Nets and their fans came one step closer to realizing those goals.
The identity and rapid development of championship expectations for the Nets is an interesting subplot because of how it runs in conjunction with the Raptors. The other sound clip I was thinking of was, of course, Masai Ujiri’s now famous “F— Brooklyn” rally cry at Maple Leaf Square before Game 1. Of course, beyond just the immediate surprise of seeing your general manager toss a profanity-laced remark at the opponent in front of thousands of fans, there was an implied message behind what Ujiri did. Together with Tim Leiweke, the two have restored — or some would even argue, brought for the first time — credibility and established an aura of legitimacy to the franchise. These playoffs for Toronto, just as it is for the team in Brooklyn, is very much about finding and establishing an identity, nevermind the fact that one team is in its 19th season, while the other is still getting used to the new car smell in its arena.
There are no championship aspirations for this Raptors team, but for a franchise that’s been swimming against mediocrity for most of their existence, it’s about charting a new path for the franchise, to overcome the insecurities and misconceptions about both the team and the city of Toronto. Ujiri’s declaration gave us a pivot, a point of reference from which we could remember when we acknowledge this outsider status bestowed upon us from the rest of the league, and actually embraced it as something worth boasting about.
Of course, all of this jockeying and positioning by the franchise’s decision makers is great, but only if paired with actual success on the court. As I sat in the upper bowl once again in Game 4 last night, I was cautiously optimistic that this Raptors team could even up the series on the road, to wrest back the home court advantage we so very much need to advance to the second round. A rousing first quarter that delivered a double digit lead for us was just the start we needed. The Raptors contingent in our section and all over the arena was strong. We chanted “Let’s Go Raptors”, the Nets fans still countered with those inexplicable, driven by pride “U.S.A.” chants (especially hilarious when it happens while all five of the Raptors on the floor are from the States). On this night, creativity peaked when a throne of Brooklyn fans replied with a “Maple Syrup” chant.
In the third quarter, as the Raptors were in the midst of a 3 for 23 field goal shooting drought, it all seemed like it would slip away again. The familiar feelings of coming close, only we were all sick of coming close and finding moral victories in actual losses. Every important Raptor player was either injured, in foul trouble, or both, and no one on the team could make a shot.
I started imaging the words on the Raptors playoff tombstone for this season: “they played terrible for stretches, but they fought”. Even though the game was tied headed into the fourth quarter, I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about our chances.
In life, and especially when it comes to rooting for your teams, our past experiences with them informs us on what we should anticipate when watching them in the present. Specifically for the Raptors, a team that’s never even won a seven-game playoff series in the franchise’s history, you tend to always wait for the other shoe to drop. At some point, even as the team cycles through roster and management turnover every several years, you need a roster and a team to provide a frame of reference, a pivot like Masai’s rally cry, to remember, and to change the way you expect future outcomes.
In the fourth quarter, the Raptors offense never found its stride in the way it did during the first quarter when it scored 35 points. But there was this team, with Kyle Lowry playing most of the quarter injured and with five fouls, holding their opponent to without a field goal in the last 6:11. It was not basketball for those who watch for the esthetics, but it was winning basketball. It was a team that fought, that found a way to win a game that Garnett would most certainly categorize as a bar fight.
The Raptors have not won too many of those in their history, perhaps none. The first road playoff win for this franchise since Drake was 14-years-old, or, since May 2001 if you prefer. And one that even though only served to even a first round series at 2-2, feels like a turning the corner moment for this team.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, I leaned back on my seat, and just watched the Raptors fans around me cheer, clap and celebrate. It was a wonderful moment. The Raptors tombstone will have to wait another day. The fact that we still haven’t played a complete 48 minutes of solid basketball? That concern will have to wait a couple more.
On my way out of the arena, I bumped into Rod Black and Leo Rautins, and they were kind of enough to pause for a few minutes to talk to me, to share in the excitement of this Raptors victory. Black is exactly as I remember him on television, a man prone to narratives and cliches that forms most sports conversations these days. We marveled at the resilience of the team, and shared our feelings on surprising and refreshingly new all of this feels.
And you know what? For this team, and in this series, heap all of the rhetoric that comes with a team finding a new identity and charting a new course. Even if our season ends this week, or a round later, we’ll need a few more words on that imaginary tombstone I was already carving in the middle of Game 4. It should read: they played terrible for stretches, but they always fought. And in the end, they won some games and earned the respect of players, coaches and fans around the league.
All of this might not matter when the season ends, when they forget about the Raptors and shift their focus on the teams that are actually competing for the title. For in this very moment, in seeing something different from this team over the weekend in Brooklyn, and creating the reference point that every franchise needs to make its way up that championship ladder. This feeling means everything right now.
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