For so much of the season, we've assumed the Raptors would get past the first round, and probably even the second, on their way to a rematch with the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was destiny. While the rest of the NBA world looks ahead to the Cavs-Warriors' rubber match, Toronto was hoping to grade its improvement against LeBron James. That's our real championship. Look more credible against Cleveland's squad, or perhaps even -- gasp -- beat them, and the Raptors would suddenly be very legit moving forward.
Except now the Raptors are down 2-1 to the Bucks, after having been humiliated in Games 1 and 3, and barely surviving Game 2. Destiny has been put on hold.
To say a playoff game is "big" is always an understatement. They're all big games. You've got seven tries to win four games and every loss is a body blow, a gut punch, a knockout. For the Raptors however, going down 3-1 is not an option. While the series will technically not be over in the event of a Toronto loss today, spiritually speaking it would be a done deal. The Raptors have to come out firing today because if they lose... there may not be a tomorrow.
The tomorrow I'm talking about is not a Game 5, which will happen regardless of today's outcome, but something bigger. This group -- coach Dwane Casey, All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, plus Jonas Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson -- have been together for four seasons. When you add in semi-newcomers Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll, plus the new newcomers in Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, there's a lot of talent to consider here. There's also a lot of money. To underperform with this group -- a team of veterans with playoff experience that includes trips to the NBA Finals -- would send shockwaves out into the future. Free agency questions would bloom anew, every sort of trade would be possible, people could get fired.
After Game 3, some want all of that. Some see that the Raptors have hit their obvious ceiling and it's best to just get it over with. Maybe that's true, maybe not. Either way, today's Game 4 will essentially decide the fate of the Raptors. Lose, and expect huge changes soon. Win, and maybe destiny will come back into view.
Here's one change we can already expect:
Raptors expected to start Norm Powell vs. Bucks with Jonas Valanciunas coming off the bench for G4.— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) April 22, 2017