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Late-season Raptors chat with the Ringer’s Adam Nayman

We brought in long time Raptors super fan (and Ringer film critic) Adam Nayman to discuss the latest fortunes of Toronto’s team — and to get nervous about the playoffs.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

As the NBA regular season has wound down, we reached out to long-time Raptors fan Adam Nayman, also known for his film criticism at places like the Ringer and Cinema Scope Magazine, to discuss the team’s fortunes down the stretch — and to get nervous about the playoffs... together. It’s a Toronto tradition like no other!

March 19, 2018

Daniel Reynolds: At 52-18 (at the time), the Raptors are clearly in the midst of their best season in franchise history. And it has all come as something of a surprise. There were a lot of question marks surrounding this squad, and while many thought they’d be good — e.g. a playoff team, at least — I’m not sure we were prepared for what they’ve become — the East’s no. 1 seed, a possible 60-game winner, and [whispers] a credible contender.

So Adam, as a longtime Raptors, I have to ask: how is this all going to go wrong?

March 23, 2018

Adam Nayman: Well did you see Wednesday’s game (on March 21st)? They lost by three points to a rested Cavaliers team at home, playing on the second night of a road back-to-back. The season is over!

Wednesday’s game was one of the best Raptors losses in a long time. Not a good loss in that they should have lost, or even that they played all that well: brilliant in the first half with 79 easy, free-flowing points; brutal in the second when they let a motley crew including Jose Calderon bomb them from all over the court. No it was a good loss because it was humbling, which may not be how the actual players and coaches process it but should serve to remind the fanbase about the importance of managing expectations. For the record, I think we can beat Cleveland -- with Lebron, Love, and whoever they have spacing the floor -- but it’s not a certainty and nor is it our right after four years of often humiliating dues-paying on the post-season stage.

What I saw on Wednesday was a team playing like they were able to just flip the proverbial “switch” and finding that it was stuck, or that their opponent’s best player was actually the guy with his hand on it. Doesn’t mean they couldn’t have won; doesn’t mean they can’t going forward. But it’s a lot more realistic than the blowout over Lebron and a bunch of scrubs earlier this year. I’d say it’s as real as the narrow win over Houston that got the entire NBA blogosphere hype about our chances. I don’t know what, if anything, is going to go “wrong;” what might happen is that not quite enough goes right in the second or third round to get us to the Finals, which I think is where a lot of diehards are thinking (as opposed to hoping) we’re going to end up. I’ll withhold the persecution complex psychology for now (see my season preview piece for Ringer for that, and also to see how off I was about this team’s talent level). I’m more interested in discussing what’s going to happen to the rotation when the playoffs start. I say they should still roll ten-deep... and you?

Reynolds: For the record, I only caught the last few minutes of the game (I was off seeing Isle of Dogs, which I liked quite a bit), but from reading about it and watching highlights, I got the gist. The Raptors did what they could, but it didn’t matter because LeBron stays LeBron. Story as old as time. Still, I admire your optimism, and I happen to agree. I do believe this Raptors team is better suited to compete with James, the Cavaliers, and any other team thrown their way. That doesn’t necessarily mean I believe they can win over LeBron, or win a title, but it doesn’t sound ridiculous to say that. (Like when people were predicting the Celtics to easily march all the way there).

And yes, the main reason for that — beyond Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan’s culture reset adjustments — is that bench unit, or, more broadly, the depth of the team itself. Last season, there were some real holes on the roster (at power forward, mainly; but small forward was also brutal), and the trades for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker managed to paper over them -- for a time. But this new roster feels built from the ground up to give the Raptors something they’ve been lacking for all of these successful years: options. Want to go big? Run out Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas; small? Try C.J. Miles at the four for a stretch, or just speed the game up with Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam. Need a three (or four) guard lineup? You’ve got Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright to supplement two All-Stars. It really does feel amazing to type all of that out. This is such a well-built team. Now, I’m not saying the Raptors should definitely lean on actual all-bench lineups in the playoffs -- especially when we can expect guys like Giannis, LeBron, etc. to play 40-45 minutes a night -- but it gives the team so much flexibility to deal with those superstars, and hopefully tucker them out, regardless of what strategies other teams try on them.

So now, we steel ourselves, and look ahead: Are you already bracing for the first round rematch with the Bucks? Or are you still hoping for the Heat?

April 3, 2018

Nayman: With the way we’re sliding — I’m writing this on Monday after Saturday night’s infuriating and much-deserved loss at Boston — maybe we’ll end up in the eighth seed. I kid of course and I still think we’ll finish first, and in response to your question, I’d rather play the Heat because nothing makes me happier than seeing Dwyane Wade lose. But obviously the blush is off the rose a bit now.

What I saw in the Boston game was the same thing as I did during the home win over Detroit ten days ago (which I watched from my friend’s very good seats in the 100 section, nice spot if you can get it). It’s a loss of poise that could be interpreted variably as under-or-over-confidence. If it’s the former, it’s that finally getting punched in the mouth by Russell Westbrook and the Thunder after knocking over a bunch of tomato cans (not Houston obviously but lots of crappy teams were felled during that win streak) made us feel weak. If it’s the latter, it’s that going 19-2 makes you feel like you can just flip a switch and win when you have to, and I don’t think this team is there yet. Either way, a team that finally seemed to have gotten over the hump with regards to closing out opponents has been just awful down the stretch during close games; when we lost to Cleveland, the final two minutes were hard to watch in terms of our execution versus theirs.

I agree with you that we have a flexible lineup, and I think Casey is going to have to be flexible too. Against Boston, our two-point-guard lineup looked over-matched, and CJ Miles at the four (which you alluded to) was a disaster against a mid-level talent like Marcus Morris. (Am I salty because said mid-level talent torched us for 30 while looking like Bernard King 2.0? Maybe a bit. A bit salty). More and more, I find myself believing that the best version of this team is the one that plays JV or Poeltl as a true centre instead of going small with Ibaka/Siakam — there’s minutes for all of these guys, but JV is in some ways our most purely reliable offensive weapon. Not as good as DeRozan, not as prolific, not as dominant — but reliable in that if you get him the ball close to the basket he will score at a high percentage. (I sound like Hubie Brown now.) I realize JV’s efficiency is directly related to his trim minute count but my hope is that in the playoffs, he’ll get up to 30 min in big games. I think we’ll win that way against Milwaukee, or Miami. As for Boston or Cleveland, well, let’s see what happens this week.

April 5, 2018

Reynolds: What do we say about the Raptors now, after the past 48 hours, in which they looked thoroughly humbled against LeBron once again, but then put on a display of their true identity (bench power, frenzied defense, shaky shooting) in a satisfying and much-needed win over the Celtics (to semi-secure the number one-seed, by the way)? That was a long sentence. I’ve been sick with food poisoning for most of that time, and in the midst of my fever dreams I began imagining a situation where everyone on the Raps starts playing poorly at the same time — Miles never returns from his vision quest, Lowry gets himself too worked up, Siakam forgets how to finish at the rim, etc. It was terrible. Watching the Raptors bounce back last night with a flexible-as-hell small lineup — with C.J. at the four and Lucas Nogueira out of nowhere — was a special treat, and yes, it perhaps aided my recovery. (Though what the hell: Morris still lead the way with 21 points; my friend, I am salty too.) That said, I’m still nervous as hell. I do not buy into the Raptors as a switch-flipping team either. And LeBron is definitely very much in our heads (especially Lowry’s). But, hmmm... bring on the playoffs?

It’s interesting you mention JV in relation to the Raps’ success because it has felt at times like he’s fuelled it, or made some modest leap to be the big man they need. I agree with you on the offensive assessment, but it’s always been the defense with JV that’s been the problem; at times it really does look like the game is moving to fast for him. In any case, Jonas remains the team’s only real elite rebounder, and while being able to trot out different combos, involving Serge, Siakam, Poeltl, and even Bebe, is nice, I imagine Valanciunas will be needed to help muscle the Raptors out of the first round once again. And while it looks like watching Dwyane Wade lose will be someone else’s pleasure, I’m already trembling at the idea of another round of Marcin Gortat vs. JV.

So then, let’s just jump right to it. Given where the seeding is now, where is this Raptors team going in the playoffs? How far? Against whom? And does LeBron beat Toronto in 4, 5, 6 or, somehow, 7 games?

April 7, 2018

Nayman: I’m writing this after Cleveland’s loss to Philadelphia following a suspiciously missed LeBron free throw; I’m thinking we’ve got the Cavs in the second round. And I’m thinking that that sounds pretty scary insofar as it’s, you know, LeBron James. But maybe home court makes a difference? Maybe being worried about a team that is going to finish ten games below us in the standings says more about a Raptors’ fan’s embedded insecurities than the likely outcome of these two rosters in a seven game series. And it seems to me given how the games between these teams went this year that a seven game series is quite possible.

Because a LeBron-led team hasn’t lost in the Eastern Conference playoffs in so long, it’s hard to say what that scenario might look like. I think we’d have to go up 2-0 at home at minimum just to create a margin for error. We could get one game if our stars played at their highest level. Could we get the other with a killer effort from the bench? And then what? Assume that LeBron is going to win 1-2 games on his own because it’s what he does. If those come off the top, then we’re done. If we go up 2-0 and he drags the Cavs back to 2-2 at home, they have all the momentum. And so on.

Really, I think to beat Cleveland we’d have to go up 3-0, somehow — not just a margin of error, but a goddamned moat. We’d have to play at least one flawless road game — ideally in Game 3 — and then count on having two chances at home to get it done. After that I really think we’d be home free and go to the Finals. Hope springs eternal.

Reynolds: There’s not much more I can add to that sentiment. It does indeed look like the Raptors will play either the Bucks/Wizards in the first round, both of whom could be a tough out. But it’s all preamble for another shot at LeBron who, thanks to Philly’s easier schedule, looks likely to fall to fourth with the Cavaliers. Life isn’t fair sometimes.

In any case, the shooting is the thing. I know it sounds simple, but if the Raptors can hit shots, they can win a series against LeBron. The problem has been when they suddenly start getting tight (pressure can do that too a young team — and Kyle Lowry), the ball starts clanging off the rim, the lanes to the basket disappear (because the Cavs smell blood), and then it all goes to hell. Will that happen again? I mean, yeah, maybe. But does it necessarily have to happen?

It seems impossible sometimes that LeBron can lose, but then, he has lost before. It can happen — the Raptors (and we) just need to believe it can happen again. (Still, I’m leaning Cavs in 6 right now, and hoping Toronto shows some fire in the opening round.)