The final installment in an exhaustive four-part obituary of the 2013-14 season.
Fans and commentators started to take notice after their victory over the Pacers. Their ascension in the East was amplified by relativity. While the rest of the conference floundered, the Raptors steadily inched up the standings. The stark contrast gave the illusion of a meteoric rise. The upstart team filled with nobodies started making a name for themselves. Their schedule softened heading into January and February which allowed them to make up lost ground at a hastened pace. They headed into the All-Star break as the third seed in the East.
The turnaround helped DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry generated All-Star buzz. DeRozan eventually made the team, while Lowry narrowly missed out.
Lowry’s snub rightfully evoked a wave of outrage. Some teams like the Lakers, Spurs and Celtics don’t think much of All-Stars. As a point of reference, the Spurs have sent a representative to the All-Star game, without fail, for going on nearly two decades. The Raptors aren’t the Lakers, Spurs or Celtics. They’re the Raptors. Toronto hadn’t had an All-Star since 2010. To think that fans were upset over not having two representatives at the game is a bit hilarious in retrospect.
DeRozan’s selection was heartwarming because it was rightfully earned.
He will always carry the stink of Colangelo’s tenure. He will never shed that label as the relic of wasted seasons, but that detracts from his work and effort. DeRozan isn’t Colangelo’s guy, he’s his own man. When he first entered the league, he was nothing but a prospect who could jump out of the gym. He didn’t have a jumpshot. He couldn’t dribble. The humble rookie stayed largely silent and showed no inklings of leadership.
Looking back to his first few seasons, I didn’t believe he had All-Star potential in him. I thought he was nothing more than the second coming of Corey Maggette — doomed to play the leading man on cellar-dwelling teams. In many ways, he’s the antithesis of the analytics movement. He’s essentially the opposite of a three-and-D guy. And yet, although I will never love his game because he clashes so strongly with my sensibilities, I’ve come to embrace his contributions, and his role on this team.
The selection was validation for his hard work. He afforded himself well during the weekend, scoring eight points off the bench to help the East capture the victory. He shared the court with the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He was a back-up dancer to the superstars, but regardless, they were on the same stage.
Never had I been more nervous for a trade deadline.
Perhaps I was overreacting, but the possibility of a Kyle Lowry trade were all too real. Although the Raptors were 29-25 with all the good karma and momentum spurring their play, it was always undercut by uncertainty.
The way it broke down for me was a question of price — how much would it take to give up Lowry? One draft pick? Two? One and a player? Unless it’s concerning a player like LeBron James or Kevin Durant, there exists a tangible price for their services. Lowry had a price, and it wasn’t met. Hence, he stayed.
Masai Ujiri’s reputation as a cold-blooded wheel-and-dealer didn’t help. All the reasons for which I adored him — the Wall Street type of rational asset management mentality — worked against my nerves. Say the Knicks buckled, and offered a package of Tim Hardaway Jr and a first round draft pick; Lowry would have been out the door.
I breathed a sigh of relief when 3:00 p.m. came and went. Lowry and the rest of the roster remained intact, save for a minor trade involving Austin Daye. Ujiri didn’t sell high on Lowry. He also didn’t hastily grope for a rental player. As was his M.O. season long, he stayed patient.
Post-trade deadline is the unofficial starting point for playoff pushes. With their rosters in place, teams made their run.
The Raptors settled nicely into the middle pack of playoff teams in the East. Although fans point ardently to their post-Gay record, one could easily refer to Chicago or Brooklyn’s mid-season turnaround. To a lesser extent, even the Wizards and Bobcats got better with time. The playoff settled into two tiers — a hodgepodge of pretenders comprising of the aforementioned teams, and contenders in the Heat and Pacers. As the season wore on, even the Pacers fell back into the pack, leaving Miami by their lonesome atop the conference.
That’s not to slight the Raptors. The ceiling of the team, at least in the interim, came into focus with every hard-fought win. They weren’t the most talented, but they worked their ass off on most nights. In a rare case of a tired sports cliche coming to life, the Raptors followed the Spursian mantra of “pound the rock.” Every night they took to the court, each players hit the shit out of that rock. You could tell by their continued success.
However, their identity aside, the shortcomings in talent were painfully obvious at times. When Amir Johnson went down due to injury, their defense fell apart. When Ross subbed out due to foul trouble, John Salmons was forced to fill in. Fans bickered for days about the role of bit players like Chuck Hayes, Landry Fields and Nando de Colo. Heck, even Steve Novak’s name got plenty of play.
The stark difference between the Raptors and contenders was not in their desire to win, nor leadership. Rather, it was talent. Lowry and DeRozan had it in them to change the game, but aside from them, everyone else simply played at levels along a fixed range. As they went, the team’s success followed. If Valanciunas and Ross sucked on any given night, or if Greivis Vasquez missed too many heat-check jumpers, the Raptors were liable to lose. Thankfully, they showed up more often than not.
There’s no shame in relying on role players. Every team does it to a degree. It’s the extent to which it’s needed. Teams like Orlando need everybody to show up to have a shot at winning, whereas the Clippers or Thunder only need their superstars to give a shit. The Raptors fell someplace in-between, and overachieved by consistently getting enough to get by. If there’s ever anything to be said about Dwane Casey and the leadership on this year’s staff, it was that.
In fact, it was fun to root for an overachieving team who were willing to scrap for every inch. For the first time since 2007, the team outperformed their talent-level. It wasn’t years with Hedo Turkoglu partying or old washed-up veterans looking miserable on the sidelines as they waited for the sweet relief of retirement. The game meant something. Being a part of the organization meant something. Hard work was worn as a badge of honor. Perhaps I’m stretching this analogy way too far at 3 a.m, but that’s what Ujiri was looking for from the start. That was the winning culture he wanted to cultivate. To his surprise, it came to fruition within less than a year.
The playoffs came all-too quickly. The sudden turn from regular season comeuppance to actual stakes caught me by surprise.
I found myself overwhelmed by the bubbling support. There was a tangible hope in the air. I wasn’t sure what to make of the situation. My humble sensibilities as a Raptors fan were not equipped to handle the bandwagon bravado that swept the city. The more casual fans latched onto the team’s success, deeming the Raptors favorites over the creaky Nets, the more I shelled up.
It was an even match-up on paper. Toronto boasted a raucous home crowd. Brooklyn acted like they’ve been there before. Toronto had the edge in rebounding, Brooklyn had a turnover advantage. They tied the regular season 2-2. ‘Jay-Z and Beyonce versus Drake and Nav Bhatia. That last one is a tad lopsided.
I didn’t truly get swept up by the playoff fever until Game 2. I was in attendance sitting up in the upper bowl. Everyone donned their Northern Uprising t-shirts. It didn’t matter if they were oversized or poorly designed. The jumbotron spotlighted those in the crowd not wearing their shirts, and fans booed until they caved. By tip-off, the ACC was awash in a sea of white. We the North indeed.
I lived and died on every possession almost right from the get-go. I cursed the names of Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Alan Anderson. My voice was gone by halftime, my noisemaker ripped. I shouted out missed rotations and cheered on every made basket as if the players were right next to me. I could barely hear the fans in my section. They were drowned out by never-ending waves of “K-G SUCKS” chants.
The game was determined over its final few possessions. With the Raptors having dropped Game 1, it was imperative that they capture the win, lest they depart to Brooklyn empty-handed.
With three minutes left, Garnett finished an easy pick-and-roll to the tie the game at 85. A deep, sinking feeling set into my stomach — what if this all ended for naught? The season that took so many twists and turns, having perched our hopes so high, left off on a heavy crash? I looked around at the arena. There were no more chants of “K-G SUCKS”. Fans clutched their noisemakers in nervousness as an eery hush came over the ACC. I didn’t want the dream to end.
On the ensuing possession, the Raptors swung the ball to DeRozan and allowed him to operate. With the creaky Andrei Kirilenko standing guard, DeMar swayed back and forth, as if to lull the Russian to sleep. Having watched nearly the entirety of DeRozan’s career, his intentions were crystal clear to me — he was going to pull up from the midrange.
True to form, he eventually did rise up from 20 feet after negotiating just enough separation. The ACC took a collective gasp. Every pair of eyes in the arena traced the ball’s trajectory through the air until it mercifully splashed through the hoop. The shot broke the anxiety in the crowd as we rose to their feet.
DeRozan took hold of the reigns and guided the Raptors to victory. Save for a careless turnover in the final minute, DeMar scored eight points, sinking all six of his free-throws, to bury the Nets and even the series. When the game was over, I stepped back and savored the moment. I had never been more proud to be a Raptors fan. That was the pinnacle of my fandom, a pittance of return on years of emotional toil invested to the franchise.
The overarching narrative of the series isn’t tough to understand. The two teams settled into a detente. Brooklyn had more perimeter depth and boasted the only unstoppable game-changer in Joe Johnson. The Raptors didn’t have anyone who the Nets couldn’t handle, but at least in three-guard lineups with Vasquez on the floor, the Nets couldn’t afford to aggressively double the ball-handler without the Raptors netting easy baskets.
They traded punches for much of the series. After winning home-court advantage, Brooklyn handed it right back by dropping Game 4. Toronto hopped into the drivers’ seat by winning Game 5, but the Nets pushed it to a Game 7.
It’s quite fitting that the outcome of the series was decided on its final possession. With the Nets leading by just one, Dwane Casey drew up a play for Lowry to get to the basket, only it was doomed from the start. The ball was in-bounded on the opposite side of the floor which scrambled its construction. Players lined up as if the play was to come from the scorer’s table. Instead, the ball was pitched from the other side.
The effect was evident by the nervousness on the faces of the Raptors. They migrated skittishly, almost in a panic to reset the play, but they failed to line up correctly. Instead of benefiting from being surrounded by shooters, the Nets were able to double the ball without any fear of a swing pass. The 6-foot-nothing Lowry found himself standing at the foot of giants, with Williams and Garnett sealing off every option but one: split the double.
Lowry’s passing lanes were cut off. Ross stood directly behind him which allowed Alan Anderson to easily perch himself between Ross and the ball. To Lowry’s right, DeRozan stood at the wing, but he’s not much of a threat to score from deep. Regardless, with just mere seconds left, the best case scenario for him would have been to launch a contested jumper over the bigger Joe Johnson. Greivis Vasquez was out of the play entirely and Patrick Patterson sagged too far into the paint. The only option was to drive.
And so Lowry did. He split the double, and rose up for a rushed floater. Alertly, Pierce rotated over in time to challenge the shot. Having already played nearly 41 minutes to that point, Lowry had little spring in his step. His shot was easily blocked, and the season was over. In an instant, the dream ended.
I watched Game 7 from a St. Louis Bar & Grill in The Annex, a hipster-haven for U of T students in downtown Toronto. I had only seen it ever get packed with people grabbing drinks at lunch, or with bands of Leafs fans on Saturday nights. It was packed an hour prior to tip-off on a Sunday afternoon. This was a first.
I managed to secure a table by tricking the hostess into thinking that I had an incoming party of four. Instead, it was just two. I was joined by the same friend who I attended the home opener with.
We sat near the window of the establishment and I watched as various shoppers and street-goers stopped for updates on the game through the glass. If the Raptors were winning, they’d cheer, high-five their companions and linger for a few possessions. If they were down, heads were shaken as they strolled down the street.
It dawned on me that the average person in Toronto had taken notice of the Raptors. The people stopping by weren’t bandwagonners per se, but they were aware of the stakes, and held somewhat of a vested interest in the outcome. That’s more than could be said for years past when the Raptors were nothing more than a goofy purple dinosaur logo — a novelty. People were proud and cared enough to peer through the bar to see the hubbub inside. In years past, they would have walked right on by.
In retrospect, I can’t help but notice the strange coincidence of the same friend and I watching the first and final games of the season together. When we attended the home-opener, I spent most of my time explaining the minutia the team to him — player tendencies and whatnot. We didn’t exchange many words at the bar. He understood the game and it’s nuances. He knew every player and their skillsets. Like everyone else in the bar, he groaned when Amir Johnson attempted long jumpshots.
Through the course of the season, he had become a fan of the Raptors. Admittedly, he is also an ardent reader of this site due to our friendship, to which I am quite humbled, but I’d like to think his fandom also had something to do with the team as well. The compelling tale of the band of misfits rising to the occasion to beat the odds and many opponents along the way pulled him in. Hence, he sat across from me on what turned out to be the final game of the storied season.
Perhaps the enduring legacy of this past year is the dovetail transition made by casual fans like my friend. In setting a new franchise-high in wins and pushing the Nets to a thrilling seven-game series, the Raptors turned many fans from free-ticket hanger-ons to afternoon bar patrons. My friend couldn’t have been alone in his story arc. In years past, when the team was terrible and the franchise was a joke, fans wouldn’t have dared to show their faces at the ACC let alone packed the Square hours prior to tip-off. You can’t help but wonder if a waking giant had been unleashed.
The entirety of the season felt like a vividly lucid dream wherein everything broke right for once, but what if it was something else altogether? What if the team’s success — from DeRozan’s All-Star campaign, to Lowry’s transformation, to the franchise-high in victories, to creeping ever so close to a series victory — what if all that woke the fanbase up from a nightmare of general apathy? What if the fleeting taste of success wet the appetite of a dormant crop of fans who will be hungering for more of the same? What if this franchise actually had legitimate expectations again?
Maybe it was all fleeting, and the fans will hop off the bandwagon once their success dries up. Fandom is fickle by nature and only winning is true, yet I can’t escape the thought of this season meaning something, hence this verbose obituary. I’m convinced it fundamentally changed the franchise.
And perhaps that’s why Ujiri is looking to bring the band back together — Patterson, Vasquez, Lowry and all. He already sent the first signal when he handed Casey an extension just days after Game 7. Perhaps there is something special with the group in place. I’m not naive enough to expect championship contention out of this core, and I’m predisposed to always expect regression. The Raptors overachieved, and if they want to take the next step forward, upgrades will have to be made. Now, with a structure and the seedling of a culture in place, I have faith in this franchise to make the right moves, and they’ll have to. They’ll have more than us diehards to answer to.
The dream has ended. The Northern Uprising has begun.