All that’s left is Game 1.
This was a season that was supposed to be so overloaded with things that the Raptors had to prove that it would capsized the ship, sending the franchise into a rebuilding mode. Instead of destroying the season, however, the Raptors thrived by proving day after day that they had control of their season. They had to prove that they could completely re-wire their offence to deprioritize their two best players. They did that and put DeMar DeRozan into the MVP conversation. They had to prove that losing three key bench players (Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker, and Cory Joseph) wouldn’t destroy their bench. This season they have the best bench in the NBA. They had to find a way to make Jonas Valanciunas useful after spending months trying to trade him. He’s now having a career season after subtlety remaking his body and approach. They had to avoid their post-Christmas and/or post-All-Star swoon to prove that they could sustain during the dog days of the season. They’re 25-7 since January 1.
Then there is the stuff that no one asked them to do, like turn Pascal Siakam into a quasi-point forward. Or turn Jakob Poeltl into a fearsome shot blocker. Or make OG Anunoby a seamless fit into a veteran starting lineup. Or make Dwane Casey a head coach at the All-Star game.
They are 15-2 since February 1, they’re already one win away from 50 wins with more than a month to go in the season, and on Friday they completed the season sweep of the NBA-best Houston Rockets. They’re sitting at first in the East and, 3.5 games up on Boston, look likely to stay there the rest of the way.
All that’s left is Game 1.
It’s the last thing that they have to prove. Their regular season has been such a staggering — borderline unimaginable — success that it almost seems absurd to think that the ghosts of Playoffs past are still lurking in the corridors of the Air Canada Centre, but they’re there. This generation of Toronto Raptors have no legacy quite as strong as their great regular seasons followed by unwatchable postseasons. It’s why some were even calling for the Raptors to shake it up this summer. It’s why some were hoping that the Raptors would get outbid for Kyle Lowry’s services. It’s why some expected Dwane Casey to lose his job. The Playoff woes were so inexplicable that regardless of how well the team had grown over the years, it felt like their postseason struggles were simply unavoidable.
So, that begs the question: are they? When Kyrie Irving threw an off-the-backboard alley-oop to LeBron James in the opening moments of Game 1 of their second-round series against Toronto last year, it felt like a not-so-subtle statement that Cleveland knew how mentally fragile the Raptors had become in the Playoffs. It felt like the Cavs’ superstars knew that there was nothing wrong with Toronto’s skills and everything wrong with their mental state heading into April and May. Show them how unafraid you were of them and they’d play like no one should be afraid of them, anyway.
It’s also a problem that compounds itself. Every time they play vulnerable in the Playoffs, they have to deal with another season of doubters shrugging at every regular season achievement because they’ve never shown that they can make it work in springtime. That sort of doubt makes it that much harder to start the Playoffs with clear heads and confidence. Which makes them come out of the gates weak. Which makes amplifies the doubts further. Lather, rinse, repeat.
That’s why all that’s left to prove is Game 1. They have to show that they can come out on that first weekend and win (and, ideally, win convincingly). Whether it’s against Milwaukee, Miami, or even Philadelphia, they need to assert their dominance as the number one seed and legit contender —if not favourite — for the East crown. They have to play like they are taking their opponent seriously while also demonstrating that they’re just an appetizer for the real opponents still to come. They have to play with the same ruthless versatility that has powered them all season long. That’s the only thing that they have left to prove. After that, the chips will fall where they may.
The Raptors have destroyed all of the other doubts about them. They are as on-the-radar as they’ve been since Vince Carter dominated their existence. Despite Matt Devlin’s increasingly-irritating dogwhistling about Toronto’s presence in the American media (they are now constantly in the conversation, in everything from The Jump to so a prestigious SI Lee Jenkins piece to a prolonged aside on the latest Lowe Post bemoaning the the fact that Raptors fans still think they are being ignored), the only question anyone has about them is whether or not this is the year that they turn their regular season success into a new demeanor in the Playoffs. That’s it. That’s the only thing keeping most from jumping on the Raptors bandwagon, and it’s valid. After four straight years of head-scratching fumbling, you can allow for some doubt on the part of pundits looking for more than regular season dominance.
People bemoaned Paul Pierce’s skepticism in the wake of Toronto’s stellar win against Houston on Friday, but of all people, doesn’t Pierce have more reason to be skeptical than anyone? He practically wrote the book on undermining this club’s confidence, announcing that he was looking right through them before beating them in consecutive seasons. LeBron James picked up that playbook and ran it himself once Pierce moved out of Toronto’s way, offering precious little postseason respect to a team that, frankly, hadn’t earned any to begin with. Fans can get prickly over the lack of confidence people have in the Raptors’ postseason chances, but until the Raptors have a chance to silence their doubters next month, fans have to live with the skepticism that this team has earned over the last four years.
So please, enjoy the next month. The Raptors have nothing to prove over the last 16 games (although a franchise-first 60-win season would be a sight to behold). They are going to bask in what is easily the greatest regular season in team history. However, allow the doubters their doubts. They Raptors do still have to prove it in Game 1. They have to prove that they can show up to the Playoffs ready to play. This group has never done that. Now, there are a lot of things that they’ve done this season that they’ve never done before, so fans have a reason to be bullish.
All that’s left is Game 1.