The Toronto Raptors have now been to the playoffs seven times in three distinct eras; three times during the Vince Carter period, twice with Chris Bosh, and now this second go-round with the Lowry-DeRozan squad. In all those years the Raps have only ever won one Game 1. It was in their second round series against the Sixers, the first and only time the franchise has made it to the second round. That, my friends, is not the kind of tradition you want for your team.
For every Raptors post-season trip, it feels as though the team has to get reacquainted with the notion of "playoff" basketball. This season, despite their acknowledged second half struggles, the Raptors were supposed to be ready. Instead, the weaknesses of a season were compounded and exposed in their 93-83 Game 1 overtime loss to the Wizards - soft defense, a lack of rebounding, ponderous ball movement and shot selection. It could really just be nerves, but it feels like we've been here before.
"I'm very mad, I'm upset, but you know, I've got to deal with it," Kyle Lowry said after the game, a downcast look in his eye. It was easy to see the frustration in Lowry's final foul on Bradley Beal, the sadness on his face palpable as the overtime seconds ticked past with him on the bench. A look at the box score suggests that Wizards star John Wall also didn't play particularly well - his 5-for-18, 10 point, 8 assist performance isn't exactly going to set the world aflame. But Wall, along with Beal (who also struggled), were on the court to end the game, and Lowry was not. We can add his opening contest to the pantheon of flubbed Game 1s by Raptors' stars.
After the game, coach Dwane Casey rightly stumped hard for a Lowry bounce back. "He'll be OK. He had some good looks that he can make," said Casey afterwards. "Believe me, he'll be ready next time to come around to make those shots." Lowry's dogged reputation precedes him here, but "next time" is the operative phrase. It is clear the Raptors need him at his best.
Unfortunately, the player that was at his best right from the jump was Toronto's favourite villain, the nerveless Paul Pierce. Through the boos in Jurassic Park, the trash talk on social media and GM Masai Ujiri's "inappropriate" comments - his own annual tradition it seems - none of it appeared to matter to the man they call the Truth. Pierce, as is his tradition, did what he has always done and calmly set about dismantling the Raptors, almost the exact same team he faced last year. It leaves us with more questions as to what the next game will bring.
The first burning question, as Pierce shredded the team, is what will happen to James Johnson. By design, Johnson was brought in to grapple with players of Pierce's skill set - it was their weakness last year and remains as such. Casey called Johnson a "matchup" player and while he said there is a place for him in this series - encouraging! - he was cagey about what exactly that place may be.
The second question is not so much incendiary as it is simmering: Where does Jonas Valanciunas fit in here? Against Nene, it seems like the angles always disappear for the young Lithuanian. And in against Marcin Gortat, in many ways his lesser, he appeared ineffective. Obviously Jonas' lack of foot speed makes it undesirable to put him in the tornado of a pick-and-roll Wall can run. But, could his offense be the salve that cures the Raptors outside shooting woes? Or are we prepared to just, as Casey always suggests, trust the process? "Shots we have to take we're going to continue to take them because that's who we are," said Casey after the game. "We just have to make them."
Maybe that says it all about the Raptors. We know they can win, we know they want to win. But it wouldn't be a tradition if things didn't go as they'd gone before. Here's hoping for a different result come Tuesday.