I’m stepping away from my NFL expertise to comment a little bit on what I perceive to be the biggest basketball game in Toronto Raptors history. Yes, more than game seven against the Sixers in 2001, yes more than Vince’s first home game and yes, way more than Bosh’s return as well.
The hyperboles do not start there though. This is by far the best Raptors team in franchise history as evidenced by the 48 wins this season, a team-record.
What is different from this team than in years past? Well for one, this is a group of young players who adore playing with each other and they thrive off the fact that they have been castaways from previous teams and even to some extent from Raptors fans as well. Trust me, I know having been fan of the team for more than 15 years, we are as fickle as they came. This is a fan base that LOVES this team. They may not be large in numbers, but the intensity you see from the die-hard core cannot be denied. Just a quick visit to the realgm.com website will show you the dedication that exists. So when I say we are a loyal group, it is very true, but the fickle nature of Raptor fans have led them to love and hate many of the same players on the team, but only because we expect so much out of the team and players.
Many of the qualities that Toronto sports fans have grown to love, qualities that were laid by a foundation of gritty play from the likes of Wendell Clark, Mats Sundin in hockey, to Alvin and Jerome Williams and Charles Oakley in basketball, have set the standard for what a Toronto athlete should be. And you see it in this group. Amir Johnson is a lunch-pale, meat and potatoes kind of guy, who thrives on executing the intricate nuances of basketball that mainstream fans and media will rarely pay attention to, such as setting picks with timely rolls to the basket, hedging on defenders and pogo-stick like rebounding. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan show those same traits with their play this season both ranking in the top-10 in minutes per game, with Lowry ranking first in charges taken. Both players were seen as not fitting part of the ‘tank for Andrew Wiggins’ plan, which was supposed to net the team a top pick in the offseason. Instead, Lowry and DeRozan have been the most integral factors in the resurgence. And then you have Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes, who were jettisoned to Toronto after the Rudy Gay trade; a trade that has yielded an Eastern Conference best 41-21 record since December 6th. Even second year players Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas have felt the wrath of the fickle Raptors fans, who, at times, wished that other players were chosen at their spots. Now, both players, while still young, are playing their best ball of the season, especially Valanciunas, who’s been averaging 15 points and over 10 rebound in his last 10 games.
So what makes this game better than the aforementioned three from years past? It’s the ‘us against the world’ mentality and the sense of Nationalism that the Raptors have finally adopted. No longer are they trying to avoid being labeled as the NBA’s stepchild. They’re embracing it. The Raptors have gone on an extensive marketing campaign (“We The North and the “Northern Uprising”, which may or may not have been taken from Game of Thrones), one that was actually meant for next season’s 20th anniversary of the team’s inception. Drake was heavily involved in it and if you had told me this four months ago, I would’ve laughed at the thought of the rapper representing my favourite team. But this campaign has been nothing short of terrific. It truly encompasses what Raptors fans have been dealing with for years: the fewest amount of Nationally televised games, American players who think coming to Toronto is the second coming of going to Siberia and developing blue-chip talent only to have them leave. This campaign is saying that we don’t care what you think about us We’ve been trying and caring for nearly two decades and have failed. We’re going with what we got and there is no one stopping us. The Raptors are relishing their perception as outsiders in the NBA.
And let’s be honest, the hype around this year’s playoffs would not be as big if we faced the Wizards or Bobcats. Both teams are actually worse match ups for the Raptors as they can match up from a youth standpoint and the Bobcats have a behemoth in the middle with Al Jefferson, who the Raptors have never been able to contain. Somehow, the big bad Nets remain the team that most Raptors fans didn’t want to face. It could be the fact that Paul Pierce can still score 19 in his sleep with limited athletic ability, or that Kevin Garnett, a seasoned veteran and future Hall of Famer, can get into the head of the most focused of players. Garnett is one of the more polarizing players in the league, but he is also one of the most vilified by fans. He attacks lesser known players, yet backs down from one’s that are of his size. Second year centre Jonas Valanciunas will have to avoid all the noise that comes with Garnett’s play.
The Nets seemingly tanked their final six games in order to face Toronto and they are definitely not denying it. Based off the interviews from general manager Masai Ujiri, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson, they really do not care about the tanking. It’s just another low blow from their friends down south who feel the need to show disdain from a team who finished third in the East and gave the Pacers a run for their money in every game they played them in. In years past, with the old regime led by Chris Bosh, I have no doubts that this team would’ve crumpled at the thought of playing the Nets. They also would’ve let the issue with the tanking become bigger than it is. Now, they used the disrespect as a rallying cry against one of the oldest and slowest teams in the league. Make no mistake about it; The Nets can be beat and this really was the best matchup for the Raptors, who can run circles around Brooklyn with their overall team speed.
Canadian basketball is at its zenith with an NCAA tournament filled with potential first rounders. It is very likely that we will see back-to-back first overall picks from the city of Toronto. Youth ball in the country is at an all-time high and kids are not looking solely at hockey as their sport of choice growing up. This playoff run for the Raptors has propelled the team as the main attraction in the city with the Leafs doing their typical disappearing act in April and the Jays only 15 games into their season. The anticipation is majestic and I know you couldn’t pay me or any other Raptors fan a million dollars to miss this game. The city and crowd have been dying for a winner and to get playoff action and I have no doubt that the ACC will be an absolute madhouse tomorrow.