Fragile. That’s how the Toronto Raptors inexplicably perfect little season felt before the ball went up at Air Canada Centre Tuesday night.
It’s not an insult. It’s not to say there was something less than rugged about the team or the individuals on it. No one can say Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan or Amir Johnson are soft or anything close to it, and this Raptors team is crafted in their image.
But even with the Atlantic Division title hanging in the rafters and even with the crowd crazed inside the arena and out, there was a palpable fear that the whole thing could be washed away like a perfectly constructed sand castle succumbing to the relentless tide.
For once the NBA was paying attention. There was L.A.-based super fan Jimmy Goldstein making his first ever visit to Air Canada Centre to watch an NBA game. There was Canadian superstar-to-be Andrew Wiggins and his little sisters taking in the game courtside. It would be nice to impress him, wouldn’t it?
Even Rob Ford couldn’t ruin it, could he?
But it would be so Toronto Raptors, so basketball in Canada, for everyone to get on stage and forget their lines leaving everyone to go about their business and the Raptors to pick up the pieces. Again.
That’s why a mole like disgraced former NBA referee, and admitted match fixer, Tim Donaghy could crawl into the light and claim on Sportsnet 590 The FAN Tuesday that the Raptors were almost certainly going to get a screw job from the officials because the NBA cherished the TV ratings Brooklyn could deliver -- and even rational fans could believe him.
That’s why Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri’s F-Brooklyn rallying cry resonated.
It’s the same reason why every free agent departure or other snub, real or imagined, is seemingly never forgotten here.
Success has always been so fleeting in Toronto that it’s hard to look at good fortune in the eye and believe it’s here to stay.
Going down 0-2 would be business as usual, was the fear. This is not a made up thing.
Clearly the Raptors needed the heart-stopping 100-95 victory in game two of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal against Brooklyn in order to even conceive of winning the series – 95 percent of NBA teams that fall behind 0-2 in the first round don’t recover.
But they needed it for more than just the mathematical significance of heading to Brooklyn tied 1-1 for game three. They needed it as a tangible bit of evidence that the out-of-nowhere 48-win season wasn’t some kind of bait-and-switch by Dwane Casey’s basketball gods.
They needed proof that things are changing.
“It’s a lot of emotions,” said Amir Johnson, who along with DeRozan is the longest serving Raptor, having put in five years to reach even this base camp on the way to the distant summit of NBA respectability.
“We really wanted to go out there and win and show the NBA and the league we are a good team. It was definitely emotional. … For me and DeMar, we’ve been through the ups and downs of this team, we’ve been through 80-something players and coaches ... I feel like we have a duty to prove that we are a great team. So this means a lot.”
From now on it means a little less, but in a good way. I welcome you to predict who is going to win this series, but if I had to I’d take the Nets, but that’s no comment on the Raptors.
From Jan. 1 until the Nets started tanking the last 10 days of the season to make sure they matched up with Toronto, Brooklyn’s $102-million payroll ($194-million counting luxury taxes) tore through the NBA at a near 60-win pace. They are a good, balanced, deep, veteran team.
There is no shame in losing to the Nets. But getting swept aside? That would be wounding on many levels. That’s what was at stake on Tuesday.
And the Raptors delivered. It wasn’t pretty – shooting 2-of-16 from the three-point line and kicking the ball away 21 times is not aesthetically pleasing. But it was grimy. They out-rebounded the Nets 52-30; they never trailed by more than seven points. They outscored Brooklyn in the paint 50-44. They played the way they have all season, in other words.
The Raptors looked every inch a legitimate playoff team in game two, shaking off the jitters they can all acknowledge now they felt heading into game one.
“The lights were really bright for some of the guys and for our team,” said Lowry in the Raptors dressing room after the game. “We’re young.”
The Raptors like to boast they are 15-deep, and last night they looked it. Lowry shook off a 0-of-7 start to score 10 of his 14 points in the last 18 minutes of the game. DeRozan was so frustrated at having picked up his fifth foul with seven minutes to play in a one-point game that had to separate himself from his teammates during a timeout a moment later, sitting still, his head down.
“I had to refocus.”
It worked, and the same DeRozan who started his playoff career with a passive 3-of-13 stinker in game one looked like his Los Angeles hero Kobe Bryant down the stretch as he came off the bench to score 10 points and add an assist in the final four minutes of the game on his home court.
“It’s what you dream about as a professional athlete at the highest level to have the trust of your coaching staff and your teammates to have the ball in your hands to win a game for them,” said DeRozan, who finished with a game-high 30 points. “That’s big.”
Their reward is to head to Brooklyn and encounter what will likely be an electric environment with a crowd eager to let the Raptors know exactly how they felt about Ujiri calling them out before the series started.
It will be fun and difficult and another new experience for a team that is taking their baby steps all together and all at once.
But mostly it will simply be meaningful. It will mean the 82 games that came before weren’t an aberration. It will mean that the Atlantic Division championship banner isn’t merely a decoration.
Most of all, it means the promise this season has sprouted like some kind of delicate spring flower might actually last.