Though I would be interested in seeing a calculation that would show us, as Raptors fans, how many years we rapidly age during the playoffs (last night’s game alone was 10, I’m sure), I am relieved for now knowing that I potentially have three nights of decent sleep ahead of me.
The playoffs are a big time fight for everybody. This time of year no one is playing at 100%. Guys are tired, hurt, some are trying to plan where they’ll end up in the off-season and others are no doubt thinking of the banana boats they’d like to tandem ride with their friends this summer. I can think of one guy who is probably hellbent on both.
The East is a bit of a mess, it’s true. Even Cleveland, who took all 4 games on Indiana didn’t manage to do it with full domination. But the criticism for teams like Cleveland is never in the way they win, because they are a team associated with winning.
The Raptors don’t get to take a win (or loss) without scrutiny. Partially this is because of being league outliers, a fact underscored by the weird as hell U-S-A chant that started up in the Bucks’ arena last night in the final quarter (someone please tell them we only have one Canadian on our team, and that they have a Greek guy, a guy from Sudan, a Bosnian dude and one Australian). The Raptors are also part of a long and rich history of Toronto sports teams blowing it when it counts.
From our more dramatic, song-worthy curses like Bill Barilko’s lost and found body and its seeming magnetism to the Stanley Cup, to the Leafs long awaited return to the playoffs in 2013 and blowing a 4-1 lead against Boston—a personal aside: I saw many men crying in the street this night, barely consoled by many a confused girlfriend, patting them gently on their backs while they averted their eyes to their phones—hockey has long been a reliable letdown to Toronto fans. The Blue Jays, too, are generous contributors to Toronto’s bum luck. Game 2 in the 2015 ALCS had the Jays up 3-0 in the 7th inning when a routine fly ball was misplayed by Bautista and Goins, who both took a solemn moment to watch it float by rather than calling for or catching it. Kansas won that game 6-3 and went on to win the World Series.
The Raptors own examples are no less wrenching, only fresher. Who can forget the final few seconds of Game 7 against the Nets (the Nets!) when Paul Pierce reared up to block Lowry’s shot and close out the series while Kyle lay completely crumpled on the floor and DeMar DeRozan got down there with him. Or the next year, when Pierce continued the last leg of his out-for-Toronto world tour with a bit of pre-series shit talking and Washington went on to blow us right out.
Last year was the first time this iteration of the Toronto Raptors took it past the first round and holy hell was it a slog. Every series went to 7 and every game was like going through a spin cycle full of rusted rebar and live animals. Do you remember how tired you felt, how fragile? There are many critics out there who don’t consider it a commanding win unless a series gets neatly swept, and a lot of teams that wouldn’t regard it a big whup for winning a series in under 7 but fuuuck that. The Raptors just took a series in 6—it is a big whup, a huge whup!
There’s loads of things to worry about going into Round 2, the most obvious that we’ll be opposite the Cavs, but even with the way in which the Raptors appeared primed to blow it last night there’s something to feel heartened about: they didn’t. It’s a knock to the ego to give up a 26-point lead, and there’s a bit of a burn knowing the entirety of the Cleveland Cavaliers were watching the game lurch along from a sleepover at Tyronn Lue’s house, but the fact that the Raptors didn’t completely unravel, that they managed to, if not dig deep, then root down and hold it together until the clock ran out showed another huge virtue of playing with heart—patience.
The problem with playing with so much hustle is knowing when to slow down. As trying as the Bucks series got—and we’re never, none of us, talking about Game 3 again—it revealed a lot about the Raptors and their progress together as a team. They’re moving the ball around, they are more comfortable with quick adjustments in the lineup, they let calls (or the complete absence of calls) get to them less, they are thinking through the whole game instead of just reacting. They still don’t look comfortable with the easy win and loosen up their mental grip on a game when they gain an inch—and please guys, for the sake of the city’s collective nervous system, stop doing that—but communication is better and they’ve gained new gears. A rival team going on a run, a bad string of shots not hitting, no longer are these common causes for a complete nuclear meltdown. As incredible a paradox as the Raptors are, a source of sheer joy and frustration, they are doing something thus far foreign for Toronto teams. To hell with blowing it, they are learning how to take their licks.