Fan Duel Toronto Raptors

Raptors at early crossroads after Game 1 collapse

The Raptors face questions both on and off the court heading into Game 2.

About a decade ago, Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns faced a dilemma. For all their regular season success, for all the adulation for their MVP point guard on an individual level, they fell short in the postseason time and time again. After back-to-back Conference Finals exits to the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, they had their most controversial loss in the second round of the 2007 NBA Playoffs after Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended courtesy of a Robert Horry shove.

What should have been a moment where the Suns felt good about themselves after leveling the series 2-2 with two of three to be played in Phoenix was now eroded by the fact that they would have to find a way without their second-best player. They didn’t.

The narrative could have, and, perhaps, should have been that the Suns were better. That they had finally ascended to the mountain peak they so cherished but were undone by the hands of what the NBA deemed justice. Steve Kerr, then the GM of the Suns, didn’t quite see it that way, though. He saw the other story, the one where all the outsiders kept clamouring for change, that they were a team built on jump shots and they would never amount to champions without playing better defence.

So, Kerr rolled the dice. He traded one of the league’s trailblazers in Shawn Marion along with Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat for Shaquille O’Neal. “I’m well aware that I’m on the line,” Kerr told the Associated Press back then. “That’s my job. That’s why I’m sitting in this seat. I’m comfortable with the decision. I think it gives us a better chance to win, and a better chance to win in the playoffs.”

O’Neal had championship pedigree, had a history of defeating the Spurs, and was expected to bring them a swagger they lacked. He was also going to be 36-years-old by their next playoff run. Phoenix played San Antonio in the first round that year, giving them a chance to change the narrative. They had a three-point lead with under 20 seconds remaining in regulation, and then a five-point lead with just over a minute remaining in overtime. They still lost. Needing a three-pointer to tie with under 10 seconds remaining, Manu Ginobili drove the lane and found a wide-open Duncan right elbow extended and he knocked down the shot that felt like a kick in the you know what for the Suns.

Phoenix went on to lose the next two games, before avoiding getting swept on their home floor. Mike D’Antoni’s Suns were no more.

When the Toronto Raptors lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers a season ago, there was nothing controversial about it. In fact, unlike the Suns feeling they were at the precipice of greatness, the Raptors were given a stern reminder of just how far from it they were.

But, they too could have heeded the voices that called for new personnel. A freshness that would have challenged the outsiders to find a new narrative. Masai Ujiri didn’t quite see it Kerr’s way. He acknowledged that change was needed but believed that the pieces around him were good enough.

The changes to the offence have proven to be real in the playoffs. Kyle Lowry has finally carried over his regular season performances to the playoffs consistently, DeMar DeRozan is more of a playmaker, and role players are finding ways to be effective. Despite all that, though, Tuesday’s Game 1 loss felt a lot like that Duncan shot.

To a fan base that has watched this core struggle to show that have ‘it,’ the final 10 seconds of regulation made it seem as though there are greater powers at work here. VanVleet’s wide-open three, DeRozan’s put-back attempt that rimmed out, and C.J. Miles and Jonas Valanciunas missing their follow-ups to that miss.

The Raptors should have won the game, there’s no other way to put it. The Cavaliers were coming off a grueling seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers, were short on prep time, LeBron James shot 1-for-6 from the free-throw line and 1-for-8 from three, Kevin Love had seven points on 13 shots and, oh, Toronto played well, too.

Sure, they could absolutely fall flat like the Suns after that double-overtime loss to the Spurs, but that would be a disservice to the faith Ujiri showed in the coaching staff and the players. Heck, it would be a disservice to themselves.

For large enough stretches of this game, the Raptors showed they are the better team. They showed they can be successful with ball and player movement, trusting the pass, and have others besides Lowry and DeRozan make decisions with the basketball. The series has only just begun, and head coach Dwane Casey made it a point to remind his players of that after the game.

“We’ve got to stay ready, we’ve got to stick together,” Valanciunas said when asked about what Casey’s message to the team was after the game. “We’ve got to learn from this loss and bounce back. Series is here, it’s not over yet, it’s just one game. We’re in good shape. Teams win and lose, we’re here.”

The general consensus among the players after the game — outside of the expletives that repeatedly emerged from the showers — was that they let the game slip away, that they made mistakes that they shouldn’t have. They’ll continue to tell themselves that it wasn’t what’s in between the ears that saw them shoot 3-of-16 within five feet of the basket in the fourth quarter, miss their final 11 shots in regulation, and lose a game in which their opponent never led for the first four quarters.

When it comes down to it, they’ll need to show that James isn’t in their head enough to impact what they do on the court.

“At the end of the day the game is won in between the four lines,” James said after the game. “You can prepare as much as you want to, but you’ve got to go out and actually play in the four lines and 94 feet.”

On Thursday, they’ll be challenged to show they’re really here, both in between the ears and the lines. It could go the Suns way, it could go a new way, the way they’ve been striving for all year.