Breathe deep, Raptor fans. The pressure’s off.
That may seem like a funny thing to say right before the franchise’s first ever Finals appearance, but for anyone who spends time taking the temperature of the team, and the NBA eco-system around them, it’s the truth.
Toronto fans are looking forward to a series for the first time since 2013. U.S. media has (mostly) gone a solid week without referencing the Raptors as “tortured”. The expectations for the series are reasoned but optimistic. (The Warriors probably win, but the Raptors could make it very tough). Kyle Lowry smiled!
These are salad days. Make no mistake about it. If the Raps win the title, it’ll be the greatest moment in Toronto sports since at least 1993 — maybe since 1967. If they lose, well, barring some sort of horrible series of embarrassments, who cares? The Raptors are IN THE NBA FINALS, BABY!
It’s actually kinda odd to get ready for playoff basketball without a crushing sense of dread and ennui surrounding the team. It got me thinking: was it ever that way before?
So, without further ado, I bring you the Raptors 19 playoff series ranked from least pressure to most. The scoring system is simple:
1) Expectations: Were the Raptors favoured to win? Was there a good reason? How disappointing would a loss be?
2) Angst Level: How edgy were the fans? The players? Was there a sense of doom? (or, rather, since we’re dealing with Toronto basketball fans here, how big was that sense of doom?)
3) Foreseeable Future Impact: If the Raps lose, how likely would it be that the team would be torn apart/that dark days were ahead. The word foreseeable is key — Charles Oakley forcing his way off of the 2000-01 Raptors team that came within a shot of the Eastern Conference Finals was about 33 percent foreseeable (Oak was always a grump). The Raptors re-tooling after the 2017-18 Cavs sweep was about 95 percent foreseeable (and only not 100 percent because Masai Ujiri had resisted so many times before).
We’ll assign each a rating out of 10, add up the total out of 30, and that gets us our Stress Test ranking for each series. Now let’s start at the bottom:
(19) 1999-00 vs. New York Knicks:
It was the first taste of playoff basketball. Raptors fans were blissfully unaware of the tortures in store. The 50-32 Knicks had finished five games ahead of the Raps, hadn’t missed the playoffs in more than a decade, and had just been to the finals. The Raps core was young, and (we thought) committed to one of the East’s most interesting teams. As for angst? I was in the building when Larry Johnson banked in the dagger three and went skipping down the court doing that ridiculous “LJ” symbol, and honestly — we weren’t even that upset. EXPECTATIONS: 1, ANGST: 1, FFI: 2 - TOTAL: 4
(18) 2001-02 vs. Detroit Pistons:
The bloom was off the rose for Vinsanity, as the Raptors won 12 of their last 14, all with Vince Carter injured. The Pistons were making their first return the the playoffs after a one-year absence, but had finished second and had several vets in cats like Clifford Robinson, Jerry Stackhouse and Corliss Williamson, as well as Ben Wallace who had just won his first of four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards. Toronto fans weren’t sure what to think the future held. Was winning without Vince good or bad? Did we care if this team was broken up? Whatever. Raps fans were just curious how far the roll could go. EXPECTATIONS: 1, ANGST: 2, FFI: 2 - TOTAL: 5
(17) 2006-07 vs. New Jersey Nets
The first of two, “found money” teams, this edition of the Raptors was never expected to be here, but caught fire near mid-season, when GM Bryan Colangelo’s collection of Euro-players, and rookies caught fire. The Nets, while a lower seed, were a veteran-laden team, who’d finished on a hot streak. They were an obvious bad draw for the hometown team, but even if the Raps lost, it seemed this gang was going to be here awhile. EXPECTATIONS: 5, ANGST: 1, FFI: 1 TOTAL: 7
(16) 2018-19 vs. Golden State Warriors:
The Raptors are in the FINALS baby! As detailed above, this is a pretty ideal series for Toronto. Legit, underdogs, but with a chance. A fan base that is as fat and happy as it’s ever been — it’s an open-secret that while Raptors fans would love a title, they’re not, like, going to die if they don’t get one. And at this point the Raps winning the title seems as good a bet to lead Kawhi Leonard out of town as losing in the finals. What’s to worry about? Enjoy! EXPECTATIONS: 5, ANGST: 1, FFI: 1.5 TOTAL: 7.5
(15) 2013-14 vs. Brooklyn Nets
Our second found money team. Stop me if you heard this before, but an unlikely crew started to jell part-way into the season, ripped off an unlikely Atlantic Division Championship, where they were met by a Nets team filled with championship experience. This was before the seemingly never-ending referendum on whether Toronto had “it”, so the core of the team seemed secure. The only difference was that Toronto fans were feeling slightly anxious over the possibility of history repeating itself. (Spoiler Alert: It did.) EXPECTATIONS: 5, ANGST: 2, FFI: 1 TOTAL 8
(14) 2000-01 vs. Philadelphia 76ers
The first round jinx was over! (oh how naive you sweet Raptor fans were two decades ago). The Sixers were the #1 seed, and had the irresistible force known as Allen Iverson. Tracy McGrady was gone, but every other key member of the team was staying. Right? A soupcon of angst was served by Charles Oakley in round 1 when he said the Raps catered to Vince too much, but fans were pretty chill. As for expectations, winning would have been great, and Raps fans still die a little when they see V.C. miss “The Shot 1.0”, but was anybody crushed by the idea of losing? Nah. EXPECTATIONS: 4.5, ANGST 3:, FFI 1: TOTAL 8.5
(13) 2015-16 vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Raps are in the Eastern Conference Finals! A new summit had been reached. LeBron James awaited, with an excellent Cavs team. Sure we hoped they could win. Maybe even thought it was possible, but this was peak LeBron. Angst? At the thought of an embarrassing sweep, yes. But, after everything that had come before, Raps fans were in total “just happy to be here” mode. I was in the stands chanting the “Let’s Go Raptors!” that made LeBron name-check the city to Doris Burke. When I saw him do it on TV later I legit teared up and thought of him as one of history’s great humanitarians. And, sure Bismack Biyombo was leaving, but the rest of the core was here to stay! EXPECTATIONS: 3, ANGST: 2.5, FFI: 3 TOTAL 8.5
(12) 2015-16 vs. Miami Heat
The first round monkey was off the team’s back. For real this time! (and actually, kinda, yeah?) The Heat might have been the only team in this recent run, until Kawhi, where the Raps had the best player in the series, so expectations were high, but not insane. Having won that round, the fan base cooled off a lot — to the degree that even another painful Game 1 loss, (after this!) barely phased anyone. There was more concern that a loss here could spell the end of an era, but it seemed unlikely. I mean, round two, right? EXPECTATIONS: 7, ANGST: 3.5, FFI: 3.5 TOTAL: 14
(11) 2018-19 vs. Orlando Magic
Relatively low stress..... except.... the Magic came in SUPER hot. And some pundits (me), called them the worst first round opponent the Raptors could have received. Add in some still lingering first round jitters, belief that this team should be in the finals, and a horrible fear that if they somehow lost, or even really struggled, that Kawhi was out, and this was a subtly freaky experience. At least until the first four minutes of Game 2. EXPECTATIONS: 10, ANGST: 1, FFI: 4 TOTAL 15
Okay, so far, so good, right? Seems like Raptors fans are reasonable right? Yeah. Sure. Buckle up.
(10) 2016-17 vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Raps had won a round, so that was good. They were facing LeBron James. That was not. These Cavs had looked vulnerable at times, and the Raps had played high-level basketball all year — plus Masai had gone all-in (so we thought) to get Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker to defend The King. Given what had happened a year earlier, with LeBron crushing the Raps in Games 5 and 6, there was real concern that another loss could mean the end of a highly likable core. Plus would Tucker or Ibaka stay if they lost? Then again, we’d heard that before, right? And still, this WAS King James. EXPECTATIONS: 6, ANGST: 5, FFI: 6 TOTAL 17
(9) 2018-2019 vs Milwaukee Bucks
After the Sixers series, lots of people felt the Raptors ceiling may have been reached. The bench was AWOL, Kawhi was limping and Siakam had regressed. The fear that a Bucks’ spanking would badly impact Kawhi’s future was running high — although there was some hope that a Conference Finals might be enough. And, truth be told, two weeks ago, a lot of the fan base was feeling alright with the idea of losing to a team whose regular season performance had put Milwaukee a hair below the all-time greats. EXPECTATIONS: 6, ANGST: 6, FFI: 7.5 TOTAL: 19.5
(8) 2000-01 vs. New York Knicks
There was a growing concern that the Knicks might be Vince’s Kryptonite, which meshed with the beginning of a concern that Vince might not be title good. With Tracy McGrady having run out the door a year earlier, the Toronto faithful was definitely concerned that another loss could see the team torn apart (in retrospect, that might have been better?) There were also some major expectations. The Raps and New York had finished a game apart in the standings, and the Knickerbockers were clearly getting old. Losing this one wouldn’t have been a disaster, but it would have been close. EXPECTATIONS: 6.5, ANGST: 6.5, FFI: 7, TOTAL 20
(7) 2016-17 vs. Milwaukee Bucks
The first round jinx was off, but it wasn’t like that Pacers win had given Toronto fans a ton of confidence. Game 1 was a THING-thing, and the Raps were staring at a series where the best player, Giannis, was definitely on the other side. Still, Masai had loaded up at the deadline with Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, and losing here would have been a catastrophe. If the Raps crashed out, then it might mean the conference finals appearance really didn’t mean much. Especially given how it ended. And while we didn’t know Lowry was willing to leave, it was something people suspected. Blow this one, and it might have taken the choice on a rebuild out of Masai’s hands. EXPECTATIONS: 7.5, ANGST: 7, FFI: 7, TOTAL 21.5
(6) 2007-2008 vs. Orlando Magic
This one is weird, in that their wasn’t a huge expectation that the Raptors would win, but all the other factors were MASSIVE. The Raptors had just lots to the Nets, running their overall playoff record to 1-4, and Game 1 was becoming a “thing”. The Found Money (Version 1) Raps had not only failed to step forward in the regular season, they’d been a low key disaster with the Jorge Garbajosa saga looming over everything, and the whispers that Chris Bosh had wandering eyes were getting uncomfortably loud. The only thing that keeps this series from being higher on the Stress Test is because precisely nobody thought the Raps had a chance to beat the Dwight Howard Magic. They were right. EXPECTATIONS: 2, ANGST: 9.5, FFI: 10 TOTAL 21.5
(5) 2017-18 vs. Washington Wizards
The Cavs destruction of Toronto a year earlier had left the Raptors fans shell-shocked, and the Wizards brought with them the big-time swag the Raptors never seemed to have. A loss here would definitely have thrown the Raps into disarray, with all the new deals having been signed, it would make it tough for Ujiri to pivot into a rebuild, and could have lead to a really unhappy team slogging through another season — maybe destroying all the good-will the last four years had built up. Still, the Wiz weren’t that good. And most Raps fans really believed they were going to win. Thanks to a couple of Delon Wright games, they were correct. EXPECTATIONS: 9, ANGST: 5, FFI: 7.5 TOTAL 21.5
(4) 2014-15 vs. Washington Wizards
What a mess. The Raps had followed an incredible start where they looked like the best team in basketball by barely playing .500 ball over their last 50+ games. The Wizards loomed, as always, as brash, cocky, and incredibly unlikable — the basketball avatar of that guy you’d like to punch in the face, except he probably hits harder than you. After the Nets loss the year before there was a growing suspicion that this Raptors team might not be that good, yet at the same time people expected, nay demanded, that the Raptors win a round... or else. Plus Paul Pierce and his “the Raps don’t have ‘it’” was fucking back. EXPECTATIONS: 7.5, ANGST: 9.5, FFI: 5 TOTAL: 22
(3) 2017-18 vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
In many ways this is the sucker-punch series. After Cleveland barely scraped through a first round date with Indiana, it looked like LeBron’s supporting cast was finally too weak to handle a much deeper Toronto team. But warning signs abounded. For one: in that Pacers series, the Cavs had posted one of the worst shooting percentages on wide open shots in NBA post-season history — a regression to the mean candidate if ever there was one. For the other: LeBronto. Toronto fans went into this one knowing they couldn’t handle another beating at the hand of the King, and they knew that finally, this time, failure would mean the end of a team the city had cherished for the past five seasons. EXPECTATIONS: 7, ANGST: 8.5, FFI: 10 TOTAL 25.5
(2) 2018-19 vs. Philadelphia 76’ers
It already seems like ancient history, but so much hung in the balance here. The Raptors had been the better team, by record, and by point differential. They were coming off their best performance in the playoffs ever. Almost all the pundits had picked them. But.... this was a team with one of the best starting fives in the last decade. Raptor killer Jimmy Butler held the controls, and it was fair to wonder if Joel Embiid might be the best player in the series. Massive change was (potentially) predicted for whichever team lost here — especially for the Raptors. If Kawhi and co. couldn’t beat Philly now, how could they when Simmons and Embiid had another year of experience? And if all the Raps could manage was another second round exit, then why did we say goodbye to fan favourites like DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas? EXPECTATIONS: 9, ANGST: 8, FFI: 9 TOTAL 26
(1) 2015-16 vs. Indiana Pacers
And here we are. The most pressure packed series in Raptors history. After two consecutive first round exits as the higher seed, the Raptors were basically a joke. Especially in the U.S. Toronto had to win this series or it seemed inevitable that Ujiri would raze the Air Canada Centre to the ground and build from the ashes. So many things are in play here. Would the Raps have taken Siakam if they had a number of early picks from trading Lowry and DeMar DeRozan? Would Casey be gone, and so therefore Nick Nurse would never be given a shot? Would Ujiri be on the hot-seat? To make matters worse Toronto was a huge favourite, but the Pacers definitely had the player of the series — Paul George — who was factory-built to take DeMar out of the game. You wanted to be optimistic, but until this moment, it was almost impossible to get there. EXPECTATIONS: 10, ANGST: 10, FFI: 10 TOTAL: 30
So, as this series with the Warriors heats up, and you feel like you’re losing your grip on reality, remember that even with a championship at stake, this series, man, it ain’t no thang compared to real pressure.