Time is now for Raptors to make their run to the NBA Finals

Eric Smith and Michael Grange preview Game 2 between the Raptors and Wizards, where you can't expect the same Raps perimeter production, and you can't count on John Wall missing his shots at the same rate as Game 1.

Dwane Casey isn’t one for hyperbole and he doesn’t do hypotheticals either. He prefers to keep things — conversationally and operationally — between the lines.

It’s a function of a life-long belief in the merits of doing a lot of little things well, confident they’ll add up to big things at some future, unspecified date.

He’s 61 but could pass for 41, exercises daily, barely drinks, seemingly remembers the name of everyone he’s ever met and cites ironing as his primary vice – his pre-game ritual is perfecting the creases in his own shirts.

It’s worked out well for the Toronto Raptors head coach. From modest beginnings in a small town in rural Kentucky, he’s become wealthy, widely respected, and by any measure one of the most successful coaches working in basketball today.

So forgive the man, when he underplays that his team, heading into the second game of its first-round series against the Washington Wizards Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre, is charting new territory.

“As we know,” Casey observed. “We haven’t been in this position very much.

And that’s where Casey’s minimalism falls a bit flat.

The reality is bigger than he is prepared to make it.

The Raptors, with Casey at the helm, have never been in this position – one win away from going up 2-0 in a series, from being able to put a stranglehold on advancing to the next round.

The Raptors have never been so well-positioned to make it all the way to an NBA Finals and all that comes with that. The Eastern Conference has never been so welcoming, a wrinkle in time that could fold up very quickly. When DeMar DeRozan says anything short of a championship would be a wasted season he’s not far wrong.

So they need to behave like it. Splitting the first two games at home with a No. 8 seed is beneath a true No. 1; winning Game 2 is step one.

Casey’s teams have done well in Game 2 — in seven playoff series he’s coached here his teams are 4-3 overall and 4-1 at the Air Canada Centre.

The only problem is that the Game 2 wins have never resulted in Toronto being up 2-0 in a series. That would make things too easy.

The Raptors don’t win playoff series. They survive them.

There have been wars shorter than Raptors playoffs series. In their non-sweeps, the Raptors have had three that went seven and two that went six. In their 2016 run to the Eastern Conference Finals the Raptors played 20 games – or three more than Golden State needed to win the NBA title last year.

So going up 2-0 would be a very big deal, and not just because the Raptors have fought all season to earn home-court advantage – in part by going 34-7 at home, tied with the Houston Rockets for the best home mark in the NBA — although that’s not nothing. And not just because the math is undeniable — according to whowins.com, NBA teams that go up 2-0 at home in the first round are 68-4 in the series.

But it’s the bigger picture that matters more here.

After the opening weekend of the NBA playoffs a few things are becoming crystal clear.

The Raptors’ time to emerge from the Eastern Conference and make the NBA Finals is now, like, right this very minute.

Nothing against the future, but it is hard to imagine it bringing together a better constellation of circumstances.

The idea that LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers can flip a switch and shake off their regular season took a serious blow when they looked very ordinary in being beaten at home by the Indiana Pacers to open their first-round series. It was the first loss in an opening-round game for a James team since 2012 and the first time in his 15-year career he’s lost the first game of an opening-round series at home.

And while it’s a long way from an elimination game, the Pacers made the Cavs look like the NBA’s 29th-ranked team on defence on Sunday, and when they turned up the heat defensively, the Cavs’ fourth-ranked offence looked like a team of hastily assembled parts, with some past warranty that lacked chemistry.

“I mean Indiana didn’t do anything special [Sunday],” said Casey. “They were getting after it [defensively]. In their scramble mode, scramble mentality, they were there on catch.”

Even if the Cavs get past the Pacers, the early indications confirm this is not the same team that has beaten Toronto eight times in 10 playoff games by an average of 22 points in the games they won.

Conversely, the rapid rise of the Philadelphia 76ers, who set an NBA record by winning the final 15 games of the regular season and then – in their first playoff appearance since they embarked on their unprecedented rebuild — blew out an experienced Miami club in Game 1 can’t be ignored. The Heat evened things up Monday but it’s evident – whatever happens in that series – that Philadelphia is a looming monster poised to become a dominant force in the East.

The time to play the 76ers – a potential opponent in the Eastern Conference Finals — may be now because they are just getting started.

And don’t forget Boston, who won 55 games this year and has a 24-year-old point guard in Terry Rozier and a pair of wing players in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown aged 20 and 21, respectively. Next season the Celtics should have healthy all-stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back in their lineup, while president Danny Ainge has an arsenal of draft assets to package into another deal to round out their roster with even more cheap, young talent.

They are another team that will only get better.

The Raptors are saying the right thing about the importance of Game 2; they are trying not to look too far ahead.

“I think we’re just going out there and we understand the things that we’ve done this year and they’ve done great things, but that’s all part of our journey,” said Kyle Lowry. “Everything we’re doing is a part of our journey to our end goal. And we all know what the end goal is … Game 1 was just one step to our journey. Game 2 is another Game 7 for us, the way we’ve gotta play.”

But the Raptors should look back, too. They know first-hand the toll a long playoff run can take, particularly if they let series run further than they should.

By the time they were eliminated by Cleveland in the sixth game of the East final in 2016, Toronto had played 14 times in a stretch of 29 days. In contrast, the Cavaliers – having swept their first- and second-round series — had played 14 games in 41 days.

Cleveland pushed aside Toronto and arrived at the Finals rested and healthy and fresh enough to upset the Warriors in seven games, getting stronger as the series went on. By the time the Raptors made the Conference Finals they were already running on fumes.

Would Toronto have beaten the eventual NBA champions? It seems unlikely, but whatever chance they had was sucked away by the Cavs’ massive rest advantage.

As Casey might say, live for today, but plan for tomorrow. Take care of the Wizards in four or five games and the Raptors can start banking rest. Let the series go six or seven and they start building up stress.

It should be the Raptors’ mantra heading into Game 2. The Raptors are the best team in the East but their margin for error isn’t great. They don’t have a single superstar who can bail them out of trouble, nor do they have a bushel of assets that promise to make this team better two years from now than it is today.

They need to leverage every advantage they do have and see if they can fit themselves through this shrinking window in which they can compete for an NBA title.

They need to go up 2-0.

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