Every year since 2015 has been an exercise in talking one’s self back into the Raptors. After getting swept by the Wizards, it was merely a question of whether the team was actually good or not that dominated the 2015-16 season. The success of the that year stopped at the foot of a LeBron-sized wall — but hey, P.J. Tucker was gonna take care of that in 2017, no problem. After he didn’t, and belief slunk to an all-time low, along came the Culture Reset™, a killer bench, and advanced metrics so sexy you simply had to think the third hack at the Cavs couldn’t possibly end in another soul-zapping sweep.
This year it wasn’t especially hard to be sold on the Raptors’ talent. Kawhi Leonard is a freaking Minotaur; Danny Green and Marc Gasol’s reputations speak for themselves. And get a load of that marauding 6’9” dude who just decided to become a top-25 player. This team always had the right parts to be a different, more unflappable kind of great.
But even with all the evidence supporting these Raptors as legit title contenders, there was still that latent insecurity fogging the air around this team. Between the baggage, the clockwork Game 1 bed-wettings, and the unfair or overblown narratives about a certain curvy point guard, you’d be forgiven as a Raptors fan for hanging on to an inkling of disbelief in this year’s playoffs holding anything in store but more pain. For true fan base-wide persuasion to be achieved, the Raps were gonna have do to what so often was done to them during the years of the old guard — they had to go and beat the piss out of some poor inferior. Four straight wins by a combined 75 points to close out the first round in an easy five games? That’ll do.
“It’s only the Magic,” the clingers on to doubt will surely say. And I mean... fair. While Orlando was a truly stout defensive team, there was never much to be feared about an offense centred around D.J. Augustin: pick-and-roll conductor. Not beating them in five or less would have drawn deserved ire. But the way in which the Raptors, game-by-game, tightened their python grip around Orlando made it hard to hang on to lingering cynicism. Heavy favourites are supposed to be clinical in their handling of happy-to-be-there lower seeds, and the Raptors put on a 10-day course in neck-stepping from which the Magic were never going to graduate.
Count Steve Clifford among those convinced that these Raptors are different. After Game 5, while he was regretful of his team’s inability to scale up its level of play after stealing the opener, Orlando’s coach was highly complimentary of the new Raptors.
“Except for Milwaukee, they’re as balanced as anybody,” Clifford said after the game. “But to me, this is by far the best team they’ve had here in this stretch. This is a terrific team here. Terrific.”
It’s not just the coach whose squad got overrun by the Raptors who seems to believe. The Raptors themselves exude an understated swagger. Where last year’s team seemed truly haunted by their demons in Cleveland, this team walks and talks like it is now the East’s tormentor itself.
“We know what we are, and what we can be,” said Kyle Lowry after Game 5. “We’re just, honestly, going. We’re just playing, day by day, game by game, possession by possession. We’re not getting too up. We’re not getting too down. We’re just going out there and playing. That just shows the professionalism of the team. We got some great veterans, and guys that’s been through it. It’s been pretty fun to be part of a team that’s just kind of staying the course, no ups, no downs, we’re just going to ride it and play extremely hard.”
From a self-assured Lowry, to Gasol suggesting the Raps can get stops whenever they damn well please, to the subtle smirks coach Nick Nurse still can’t totally hide when he gets roped into talking about how good his team is, you can tell they know something pretty neat’s going on.
Asked about whether the team’s defense — which held the Magic to under 96 points per 100 possessions in round one — had progressed to the desired level of tightness, Leonard’s smooth, warming baritone filled the press conference room with reassuring truths.
“I mean, we’re doing it now,” he said matter-of-factly. “I think the last four games, I don’t think they’ve shot over 43 percent from the field or 45 percent. We held them under 100 points. And it’s just about being consistent now”
If a higher, even more unwavering defensive ceiling is actually attainable for Toronto, the Sixers are oh so very screwed.
There’s reason to feel good, even brash, about the Philly match-up. Of the many players whose lunch Kawhi consumed this year, no one got jacked of more PB & J than Ben Simmons. And of all the league’s potential Joel Embiid foils, Gasol has proven to be among the most constricting, albeit small-sample noise applies to both individual showdowns.
Joel Embiid vs former DPOY Marc Gasol (with career numbers in brackets): 5 games, 2-3 record, 14.0 pts (24.3), 4.4 turnovers (3.7), 34% FG (48%), 1-16 3P (32%).— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) April 24, 2019
Ben Simmons vs 2-time DPOY Kawhi Leonard: 3 games, 0-3 record, 13.0 pts (16.4), 8.0 turnovers (3.5), 53% FG (55%).
Philly’s starting five is probably the most talented in the East; Toronto’s, however, looks and feels like the best. There are no excess or wasted parts in the Raptors’ top unit. Everyone serves a purpose befitting their talents. Danny Green is asked to be Danny Green on his team; Jimmy Butler is asked to be Danny Green on his, too.
Simmons is underappreciated, and against most teams can work around his aversion to shooting with his overwhelming power. The Raptors are not most teams. With a far more balanced talent spread than there was against the teeny-tiny Nets, Simmons becomes eminently more scheme-able. There may not be a team in the league better equipped to choke out the Sixers than Nick Nurse’s band of defensive savants. Even Raptors fans are starting to act like they know it.
Maybe the eeriest thing about the hours after the Game 5 closeout was the confidence radiating from Raps fans, particularly the extremely online ones. No picking of minor nits after the win, no fear-mongering over the Raptors’ next opponent, no existential dread, whatsoever. The mood was downright sanguine, with a twinge of emergent arrogance woven in.
Is it weird that I have more confidence in the Raptors over the Sixers than I do the Magic?— John Gaudes (@johngaudes) April 24, 2019
Beating the Magic so amply freed people to believe in what these Raptors have been selling since Day 1. It erased the fear of being told the same old story of spring basketball in Toronto.
What Raptors fans are about to experience is the payoff of long-term fandom. Sure rings are the concrete success markers everyone’s ultimately after, but the point of fandom can’t simply be boiled down to titles. That’s a surefire way to be sad, perhaps for a lifetime. What teams are really in the business of selling, and what fans crave most, is belief. Not the artificial kind that’s baked into every team’s supporters locally. Every run-of-the-mill good team has that. Shit, Jazz fans can still barely comprehend that their ideal shot spectrum earned them a five-game first round loss.
Earnest, widely-held belief in the ability of a team to be truly special, though? That’s the white whale, baby. And these Raptors have captured it.
For most other franchises with such high ambitions, dispatching the poor Magic might seem as mundane as taking out the trash. But the reservations in these parts can be stubborn. In fact, it speaks to the quality of the product the 2018-19 Raptors have been selling all along that a douchebag sweep of an over-matched team was all it took to wipe away most, if not all of the fan base’s ever-present worry.
Round one proved that these Raptors are no joke, that their season long pitch to be believed in was not in the name of a faulty product. All the anguish and disappointment is about to become worth it. For the first time, the Raptors are worthy of your unconstrained belief.