Run away with me

Why a hot start and a long summer have me letting my guard down.

Cognitive dissonance has never felt so good.

Admittedly, I was the most pessimistic person covering the Toronto Raptors entering the 2015-16 season. My prediction of a 44 wins was the lowest here at Raptors Republic. It was the lowest in a RaptorsHQ panel and The National Post panel, too.

I thought the team would take a while to learn a defensive system that, despite Dwane Casey’s claims, is fundamentally different from last year’s. I thought the offense, which the team didn’t begin working on until their fourth preseason game, would be slow to come around in the absence of several key second-unit shot-creators. I thought the road-heavy early schedule could lead to some stumbles right around this time. Longer-term, I was concerned that a lack of depth at small forward and center made what initially appears to be a deep team one that could ill-afford certain injuries. I thought this team would be good, and competitive come playoff time.

I was wrong. This team is great.

I’m normally reticent to overreact to single games. Eric Koreen of the Post calls us The Reasonablists for measured responses to the everyday ups-and-downs of an 82-game basketball season (which is another way of calling our takes cold, or worse, boring). I know far too well the perils of extrapolating from small samples. I know some of the concerns I had when I predicted a five-win drop from last year still exist.

I don’t care. These are my walls, coming down. This is my optimism, no longer guarded. This is me buying in.

The Raptors have opened the 2015-16 season at 5-0. They’re one of three undefeated teams left as of this writing and will be one of just two undefeated teams in a few hours. They’ve beaten three fringe Eastern Conference playoff teams. They’ve beaten a fringe Western Conference playoff team (although that’s a generous description of the Dallas Mavericks). They’ve won at home and on the road. They’ve won pretty and they’ve won ugly. They’ve dominated and they’ve scratched out games where they weren’t at their best.

On Wednesday, they beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, 103-98, on the road, on the second night of a road-road back-to-back. The Raptors were eight-point underdogs, as teams on the second end of a road-road back-to-back win less than a third of the time and the Thunder are very, very good. They’re my pick to make it out the loaded West. They employ Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, two impossibly talented players. The Raptors trailed by as many as 12 and looked gassed mid-way through the fourth quarter, the dreaded “moral victory” looming for a valiant effort against tough circumstances.

And then, exactly as they’ve been saying they would in a situation like this, the Raptors fought. They fought like hell.

They didn’t allow a field goal from the 5:13 mark of the fourth quarter onward, locking down on defense with what I’ve been calling their closing lineup, their starters with Cory Joseph in place of Luis Scola. DeMarre Carroll helped contain Kevin Durant, like he was brought in to do. The Raptors forced Russell Westbrook into tough shots and a pair of late turnovers. No Thunder player grabbed a single rebound in the closing 5:13, and save for one team rebound that went the Thunder’s way, the Raptors hauled in every miss. Oklahoma City got to the line some, because guarding Westbrook and Durant is impossible, but the closing five-plus minutes were remarkable: five points on 0-of-6 shooting for the Thunder, 18 points on 4-of-8 shooting and a perfect 10-of-10 mark from the charity stripe for the Raptors.

If Raptors fans were ever going to buy into the 2015-16 team, it had to be on these terms, with a team that came out of the gates just like this. Last year’s version likewise started hot – a cautionary tale I’m ignoring, to be sure – but there were warts everywhere. And they were fun because the scores were high and Lou Williams made some ridiculous shots, but they were hardly a team and, to be honest, they weren’t particularly likable. A predictable and aesthetically displeasing offense operated as a false panacea for a leaky defense, and the team flamed out famously in the playoffs, warranting fairly major offseason changes. It’s unlikely the same smoke and mirrors would have worked a second time – fostering wholesale buy-in would rely on more than just record. It had to be the right kind of team, succeeding in a more meaningful way.

There don’t appear to be any illusions at play here. This Raptors team is going to be very, very good defensively. The offense may sputter at times, but they have a pair of creators in Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan who can get to the line when things stall, they’re using Jonas Valanciunas more effectively, and Cory Joseph has the makings of a down-ballot Sixth Man of the Year candidate. They’re a better rebounding team than most expected entering the season. And holy hell, does this team fight on every single possession.

Here’s what Carroll predicted as the team’s identity the Monday before the season began:

I think first and foremost, you’re not gonna have one game where we don’t come out with the effort. People are not gonna look at the TV, look at the game and be like, “they didn’t play hard.” That’s the perception that we’re trying to take. You can’t do everything right, you can’t play a strong game every night, but you can always play hard. I feel like that’s what we’re trying to do and that’s what coach Casey is trying to make us do. I think defense is going to be our calling card.

Umm, yeah. Nailed it.

I said in my pre-game that games that seem the most obvious losses are the biggest opportunities. The term “statement game” is thrown around too much and has almost lost its meaning at this point, but it’s hard not to give in and apply the cliched term to Wednesday. After the first 4-0 start in franchise history, one that was impressive enough to make others start to re-evaluate the team, the Raptors would have been entirely justified in coming up short. They were fatigued. They were on the road. They were against a very, very good basketball team. And they were down late.

Instead of folding, they fought like hell to steal a game they had no business stealing.

The Raptors are going to lose games, and they still have eight of their next 10 on the road. They’re not going to go 82-0, and they might not even hit the vaunted 50-win marker. Stuff happens, and it’s a long season. And the real measure of this team will come in the playoffs, when they’ll need to win just the second playoff series in franchise history to really resonate after the fact. But I’m far more optimistic now that I’ve seen what this team can do, how they can defend, and that their identity on the court matches the one talked about so fervently in training camp.

They’re good, and they’re tough as goddam nails.

Perhaps it’s fitting that I was out on a patio this afternoon, drinking a beer in the sun despite the fact that it’s Nov. 4 and this is Ontario. It felt like it was somehow still summer. Tonight felt like it was still summer, too, as a Toronto sports fan. I’m coming off of the most fun three months of sports fandom in my entire life. The Toronto Blue Jays went all-in to become the best team in baseball, then stormed to a playoff berth and a penant. Down 2-0 in the ALDS, they fought back against all odds for a 3-2 series victory. They lost in the ALCS, a few breaks from a potential World Series berth, but it was a remarkable run and a summer I can’t ever imagine forgetting. And yeah, this is a Raptors site, not a Jays one, and the only similarity the two teams share is the city they play in. Whatever. From July 28 onward,I learned how good it can feel to just believe, and how rewarding investing entirely in a team can be, if it’s the team legitimately warrants the belief and the investment.

At a very impressive 5-0 and with a major signature win already in the books, I’m ready to believe. And you should be, too.

Unbridle your enthusiasm. Run away with me.