Beggars can't be choosers, as the old saying goes. And for many years, make no mistake, the Raptors and their fans have been beggars. So as we sit here looking ahead to tonight's Game 5 against the Miami Heat in Toronto's second round playoff series, we really shouldn't complain. This is what we wanted after all, what we begged so diligently for. A playoff series win, a bigger stage, a chance to make a real run in the post-season.
Then why do I feel so bad about all of it?
The inferiority complex of Raptors fans is well-earned. For most of the last two decades, we've been a footnote -- and with good reason. The team was named after a 90s movie, it became the sole outpost in Canada, it never had any real success. Outside of those two to three glorious Vince Carter years, and some fun in the mid to late 00's, the Raptors have never been good. And even when they were passably good, they were always treated as an addendum, a mere stepping stone for some other team's narrative. That's how it goes for a lot of teams in the NBA.
This year, finally, was supposed to be different. The Raptors finished second in the conference with their first 50+ win season. They were in the top third of the league in both offensive and defensive ratings. They had two All-Stars, complementary starters and a bench of solid role players. They had wins over almost every significant team in the league. In short: the Raptors were going to write their own damn story in these playoffs. With everybody watching, they'd be ready.
It hasn't happened that way. Since the spotlight hit Toronto in Game 1 of their opening round series against the Pacers, the Raptors have been a frustrating, unsolvable puzzle. Actually, scratch that, they've become something of a joke to the broader NBA audience. To get steamrolled like the Pistons or Hawks were by the Cavaliers is an understandable fate, to be undone by injury like the Clippers is something of a noble defeat. To compete and win a series of exciting games like the Heat did against the Charlotte Hornets is something noteworthy. For the Raptors, their run instead feels like luck, like the bad decisions of other teams have helped more than the good decisions of theirs, like they've inexplicably backed into the spot they now find themselves in, like they're due any day to be exposed and sent back to the forgotten warren from which they've come. It's not helping a Raptors fan's inferiority complex, is what I'm saying.
We've learned some important things -- both good and bad -- along the way. First, injuries suck. We knew this, of course, but to see it play out at such a big moment, with Jonas Valanciunas literally playing the best basketball of his career, is tough to stomach. Second, some of those bench players -- namely Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson -- are far, far more valuable than their contracts would suggest. And third, well, injuries suck. That's it, they just do.
If we're being charitable, that's what we can point to -- injuries -- as we watch DeMar DeRozan clang another jumper, or Kyle Lowry go through another inexplicable poor shooting night. DeRozan's thumb was bent way out of shape in Game 1, and while his shooting numbers have been poor throughout the playoffs, there is at least now an excuse. DeRozan's lack of game awareness however, as he shoots and shoots and shoots again, remains inexcusable.
Lowry, meanwhile, insists that nothing is wrong with his elbow. I don't know about you, but I almost wish he was lying about this so we'd have something to point to after another subpar shooting night. Lowry's game hasn't been a complete disaster -- at least not on the clueless level of DeRozan -- but these playoffs (when stacked against the totality of Lowry's career playoff experience) have not exactly been encouraging. Lowry said today "we're doing something right" and it's hard to entirely disagree with him. The team is where it is because of him. Lowry remains the engine that keeps the Raptors going; but what does that say about the car?
Raptors fans, one and all, will hang tough with this team. We'll scream about DeRozan, or an errant Terrence Ross pass, or an inexplicable Bismack Biyombo benching. We'll smile and cheer when things go well. Above all, we'll tell ourselves a win is a win is a win, keeping in mind this team is just two wins away from the Eastern Conference Finals.
But the broader narrative here, the one that people will remember (if they remember it at all!), is that the Raptors are bad. They play ugly basketball. They look nervous and unprepared. Their late game execution? Forget about it. Aside from a bright shining second half in Game 3, when it looked like Lowry may finally rise back to level at which we are accustomed to watching him, the story has been elsewhere -- the injured centres, the late-period form of Dwyane Wade, a possible LeBron showdown, the ball literally giving up. Everyone just wants it to be over.
We should't complain though. Beggars can't be choosers. The Raptors are muscling their way through the playoffs and -- win or lose -- that means something. I just wish I didn't have to watch my team become something of a punchline. I wish Toronto could be more than a footnote. I wish it didn't feel so exhausting.
I wish these bizarre wins would feel more like pure victory.