The Raptors are good as hell. Even when they lose the odd game here or there, it will be important to not lose sight of that. This is the most talented team ever assembled in Toronto, and it won’t last forever. So rather than getting hung up on the things the Raptors do poorly, this column is designed to appreciate the silver linings even when the score line doesn’t favour the good guys. There are only so many games in a season — why not enjoy all 82?
This is What Didn’t Suck for the Raptors’ 106-105 overtime loss to the Nets.
In many ways, the Raptors franchise has been defined by its relationship to the Brooklyn (née New Jersey) Nets. Toronto’s very first test of the NBA waters came against the Nets; their most important and also laughable trade was conceived with and lost to them; the mirage that was the 2006-07 season disappeared at the hands of Vince and his band of vastly superior and battle-hardened teammates; even the most purely enjoyable season the team’s ever put together was stopped by a creaky, over-hyped and under-performing Nets squad.
The “Fuck Brooklyn” sentiment runs deep in these parts.
But in the moments after the Raptors loss to the Nets on Friday night, just hours before the clock flipped to midnight to ring in the fifth anniversary of the Raptors’ second-most pivotal trade, something dawned on me: The Nets don’t matter to the Raptors anymore, and haven’t, really, since the end of that Game 7 in 2014.
Sure, Friday night’s loss was bothersome, the way I’m sure it’s annoying for an older brother to get bested in a one-off by a younger sibling whose only driving purpose is to beat their superior just one freaking time.
Toronto didn’t play well. Nick Nurse’s decision to go small against the Nets’ board-crashing front court both exposed the Raptors most well-known vulnerability and kept a cooking Jonas Valanciunas off the court when it mattered most. Kyle Lowry’s 3-3-11 on 1-of-8 shooting was cool as a work of abstract box score art, but wasn’t gonna win his team a damn thing. At some point someone on the bench is going to have to make a shot.
Ultimately, though, Friday’s loss means next to nothing in the aggregate for the Raptors. They did some stuff poorly, they’ll adjust, and their wayward shooting will eventually regress to the mean. Meanwhile, as illustrated by the admittedly delightful post-game joy exuded by their players and fans, getting that win meant just about everything to the Nets; it is probably going to be the highlight of Brooklyn’s season, and it happened on December 7th.
This was Brooklyn’s first win over Toronto since April 2015. Since the 2014 playoff match-up, the Raptors are 117 games over .500 and have won four playoff series; the Nets are the same number of games below — but hey they did sign Treveon Graham in the off-season and basketball internet thought it was pretty cool.
After two decades of torment, the Raptors have morphed into the Don to the Nets Michael ... or is it Mark? I’m unsure of this character’s name.
Brooklyn is beloved in NBA appreciator circles because they try really hard and shoot a thousand threes a game. Their dirty little secret: They do that because they have to; because if not for favourable math and max effort, they would be the most embarrassing team in the NBA. They would be the Bulls, without the exciting, lottery-drafted prospects, because they misplaced their first-rounders, though I can’t quite recall where exactly...
The Raptors used to be what the Nets are now; a talent-poor, bobbing life raft of a team done in by it’s own suspect dealings.
The Rudy Gay trade sparked a change in that mottled complexion. In the intervening five years, the franchise has left its sad boy status behind. Yeah, there have been bumps and road forks and LeBron off-glass dunks along the way, but through all of that, Masai Ujiri, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Dwane Casey and now Nick Nurse and Kawhi Leonard have built the Raptors into a franchise that isn’t defined by its shortcomings anymore. LeBron’s gone west, and the Raptors are revamped, more dangerous and, as shown by this column, more arrogance-inciting than ever. Every Raptors victory, each season of 50+ wins, every All-Star selection and sterling performance on US national TV tilts the scales of team history towards the side of success, not sadness, being the prevailing tale of the team. Whatever lordship the Nets once held over the Raptors’ narrative arc has been muted by Toronto’s exemplary post-Gay slow build, every move pulled by Ujiri along the way done with an eye on turning the Raptors into a franchise to be envied. Now, they employ this goddamned dude, who plays the same position Gay did just five years ago.
Watching Kawhi Leonard do this dunk live in person just now was fun: pic.twitter.com/q7YMzfQdWk— InsideHoops.com NBA (@InsideHoops) December 8, 2018
On January 27th, 2014, Toronto’s post-trade afterglow was still fresh, its sustainability still very much in question. With the Raptors trailing Brooklyn by one with 12 seconds left, this eminently memorable sequence unfolded.
Patrick Patterson’s game-winner that night carried heft. At the time, that win in Brooklyn felt like a must — not just as a necessary W in the muck of a mid-conference traffic jam, but as a piece of evidence to help prove the Raptors’ legitimacy.
Last night, so many years removed from that flash point of the euphoric trip that was 2013-14, Fred VanVleet’s open-three pointer pinged off the rim and the final buzzer sounded, and the appropriate reaction was to shrug the shoulders, and continue on with the night. That’s not a game the Raptors needed. With a cushiony perch atop the East for the second straight season, losses don’t bring a sting anymore, let alone against a team Toronto has so sufficiently handled for years. Kudos to the try-hards, moving on now to Sunday’s game against Milwaukee.
Four times a year the Raptors are forced to think about the Nets because the schedule tells them they have to. Brooklyn’s presence is no longer an ever-looming cloud in the minds of Toronto’s fans or players or management. Maybe they’ll land a lottery pick to pair with their collection of broken prospects and Caris LeVert. Maybe it’ll turn them into first-round playoff food come 2020. Whatever the case, the Raptors will not need to consider their existence outside of individual game nights for a long time yet to come.
In fact, it may even be time to retire “Fuck Brooklyn” as a common refrain Raptors fans have long come back to for warmth and glee. Directing that kind of animus the Nets’ way implies that they actually matter.