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How We Got Here: A history of the Raptors-Nets rivalry

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As the Raptors and Nets prepare for their first-round matchup, we take a look back at how the ongoing rivalry formed — and transformed — throughout both franchises’ ups and downs.

David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets are set to renew their rivalry today in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. The familiar franchises will have faced each other in three of the last fourteen postseasons... which, admittedly, doesn’t sound like a whole lot. In fact, for two teams in the same conference who haven’t endured anything approaching a Sacramento Kings-esque playoff drought, it’s not an especially high number. In just the last five years, the Raptors have played two series against both the Wizards and Bucks. Hell, they faced the Cavaliers in three consecutive postseasons. So why then does it feel like the Nets are the Raptors’ biggest rival? It’s because rivalries sometimes go beyond the competitiveness of the individual games and the outcomes of a series.

The history between the Raptors and Nets goes back decades. In fact, the Raptors’ first ever game in the NBA was a 94-79 win against the New Jersey Nets at SkyDome. Toronto, then of the Eastern Conference’s Central Division, played the Nets a handful of times per season. Leading up to the 2004-05 season, the Raptors were switched into the Atlantic Division, making the two teams division opponents. The stage was now set and on December 17, 2004, the rivalry officially began: Vince Carter was traded to the New Jersey Nets. (More on that in a bit.)

On the whole in league history, the Raptors are still a relatively new organization. The team hasn’t been around long enough to form a marquee rivalry like Celtics-Lakers or Pistons-Bulls, nor does Toronto have a natural, geography-based adversary (until the league expands to Montreal sometime in the 2050s, that is). And yet, for the last decade-and-a-half, the Raptors have sustained an ongoing rivalry with the Nets.

It’s an odd, disjointed rivalry, one that has gone through a few lulls and a lot of changes. It began as an admittedly strange pairing of teams: the poorly-run Canadian team which played in a hockey city, versus the team with ugly jerseys that couldn’t even sell out their arena during the NBA Finals. Fast-forward to the present and neither of the aforementioned situations are recognizable. The Raptors have become a model organization in a big-market city that’s come to be rabid for basketball, while the Nets have relocated and rebranded so successfully that they’ve surpassed the neighbouring Knicks in terms of status and reputation among players (or at least Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving). Put simply, both franchises have glowed up.

The history of the relationship between these two teams and their respective fanbases is one that’s been kept to the fringes of the league, reserved for audiences who get NBA TV and ESPN2. But when both teams are competitive, their fanbases have found few things as consuming, impassioning and occasionally satisfying, as rooting against each other.

Things cooled off the last few years as the Nets took their turn in the league’s basement. But this Monday, with Brooklyn faring surprisingly well in the NBA Bubble, the two teams will have a chance to pick up where they left off. Here’s a little refresher on how we got here.

Toronto vs. Vince Carter

I’m not turning any heads when I say that at one point, Vince Carter was the Toronto Raptors. His breathtaking athleticism and star power not only took the team to new heights, but probably even helped keep the franchise in the city. (Lawrence Frank, Carter’s one-time coach, would go on to say that had the Vancouver Grizzlies drafted Carter, they would still have a team.)

Cut to September 2004. Carter publicly demands a trade. GM Rob Babcock downplays the trade request, saying “it’s not really an issue” because Carter’s under contract. He is wrong, and three months later agrees to a trade that sends Carter to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for Aaron Williams, Eric Williams, two first-round picks and the ghost of Alonzo Mourning.

The treatment Carter subsequently received from Raptors fans was ruthless — and lasted unprecedentedly long. To fully capture the ferocity with which he was received by the then-ACC crowd, here are some excerpts from the Associated Press recap of his first game back in Toronto:

“Fans booed Carter from the moment he stepped on the court, heckled him during the U.S. national anthem and jeered every time he touched the ball.”

“Additional security guards were posted by the Nets bench to protect Carter...”

“Fans also brought signs mocking Carter, and they chanted his name derisively. One even brought crutches, wore a Carter jersey and had his head heavily bandaged. Others wore baby bibs with the No. 15 written on the front.”

The crutches and baby bibs didn’t last very long, but the booing certainly did — even in a league full of emotional attachment to stars, the fervid reaction to Carter was anomalous.

A star player demanding a trade wasn’t at all a new phenomenon, but a number of factors made Carter’s forced departure especially painful for Raptors fans. First, after watching Damon Stoudamire and Tracy McGrady leave Toronto as soon as possible, Raptors fans became almost possessive over Vince. Second, Carter admitted following the trade that he didn’t play hard enough in Toronto. That admission, coupled with the emerging report that he’d intentionally tipped off a play to the opposing Sonics at the end of a close game, gave his request an added sense of betrayal. Finally, there was the trade itself. Alonzo Mourning refused to suit up for the Raptors, the Williamses averaged a combined five points per game and the two draft picks amounted to Joey Graham and a Jalen Rose salary dump. The lack of literally any positive return from the trade left the Raptors strapped for talent. The fans had little to cheer for — but they had the perfect target to root against.

Given that Vince’s new team was New Jersey, the Nets naturally became enemy number one in Toronto — and those Jason Kidd-era Nets embraced it. Torturing Raptors fans became the official pastime of the state of New Jersey. Remember Carter’s previously mentioned first game back in Toronto? He scored 39 points and grabbed nine boards in a 101-90 victory over the Raptors. But the incessant booing didn’t motivate just Carter. “Everything around Vince helped us focus and concentrate,” said Nets star Kidd post-game. “As much as he wanted to win, we wanted to win too.” This matchup was being marked on everyone’s calendars.

The Nets won their next game in Toronto by 10, helped by Carter, who scored 20 points despite being booed — and double-teamed — the whole game. When asked about the boos, he said, “It’s beautiful. It doesn’t bother me at all. I enjoy it.” Later that season, Carter silenced the crowd by making a fadeaway three at the buzzer to beat the Raptors 105-104. He finished with 42 points, and fellow Raptor-turned-Net Lamond Murray called the game “sweet revenge.” In a notorious 2008 game, Vince stuck a knife in the heart of Raptors fans by (a) scoring 12 consecutive points in the fourth; (b) hitting a last-second three to force overtime, and (c) winning the game with an alley-oop off an inbounds pass. For Nets fans it was legendary — for Raptors fans, devastating.

Nets point guard Devin Harris called Carter’s performance “incredible.” Andrea Bargnani said, “I don’t even know what to say, I’m so upset. It’s unbelievable.” (Can someone research whether this game directly impacted the trajectory of Bargnani’s career? The guy was, like, alarmingly bummed.)

The pinnacle of the rivalry between the Raptors and Vince’s Nets came in the 2007 playoffs when Toronto, coming off five straight lottery years, returned to the postseason to take on the more experienced Nets. The sold out crowd in Toronto was given red t-shirts for Game 1, so naturally, the Nets played in their red alternates as a nice little “screw you” to open the series.

As per tradition, Carter was booed by Raptors fans every time he touched the ball. And, as per tradition, Carter torched the Raptors on more than one occasion, with averages of 25 points, six boards and four assists over the course of the series, including a 37-point performance in Game 3. The Bosh-led Raptors were skilled enough to make it interesting, but the Nets won the series in six games, ending the Raptors’ hopes of achieving postseason success without Vince.

Toronto vs. F! Brooklyn

Coming off a six-year playoff drought, the good-out-of-nowhere 2013-14 Raptors clawed their way to the Eastern Conference’s third seed. Their first-round postseason opponents were the Brooklyn Nets, whose newly-formed nucleus of aging, highly paid and oft trash-talking stars made them not exactly difficult to hate. The Raptors-Nets rivalry had cooled off at this point — Carter had been off the Nets for five years, neither organization had been particularly competitive (they each made the playoffs once between 2008 and 2013) and the Brooklyn Nets didn’t even feel like the same team as New Jersey’s iteration. The only real link between the Nets of old and the new-look Brooklyn team was Kidd, who’d been hired as the team’s head coach. Despite all these changes, the rivalry was born again.

Before the series even started, there was “rampant speculation” that the Nets had tanked to play the third-seeded — and perennially disrespected — Raptors, rather than the fourth-seeded Bulls. When asked about the Nets’ speculated tanking, Masai Ujiri responded, “Good for them. You know what? We haven’t lost one ... second of sleep worrying about the Brooklyn Nets.”

But things didn’t really take off until, well... I’ll just leave this here:

Following Ujiri’s electrifying pre-game speech (and $25,000 fine), there emerged a reactionary discourse between fans, players, and public figures from both sides. First, Ujiri himself apologized for his word choice, though he doubled down on his stance, saying, “You know how I feel. I don’t like them.” When Nets forward Paul Pierce was asked about the Raptors GM’s “F*** Brooklyn” comment, he responded, “Really? I’m shocked that Bryan Colangelo would say that.” Similarly, Kidd responded, “I don’t even know who that is. I could care less what they think about Brooklyn.” (For the record: Pierce’s comment wins for its creativity.) Even Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams got involved, releasing a statement in response to the comment:

It’s unfortunate that the Raptors’ GM felt so desperate facing against our Nets that he would throw profanity around discussing our beloved borough, but I can’t say that I’m surprised. After all, Brooklyn is a classier place. Just compare Babs to Biebs or spend some time with their... colorful mayor. Still we spread love; it is, after all, the Brooklyn way.

The series itself was thrilling, with four games being decided by five or less points. Between the Nets’ physicality and Kyle Lowry’s constant hustle plays, the gameplay was as chippy as the press conferences. Meanwhile, the crowds were raucous — in Toronto because they cheered with the pent-up enthusiasm of a team that had missed the last six postseasons, and in Brooklyn because they were particularly inflamed by what Ujiri had to say.

The seven-game series came down to one last play (which will not be discussed in detail) and in the end, as was the case throughout both the 2007 and 2014 series against the Nets, experience and poise won the day.

A bitter taste was left in the mouths of Raptors fans, and continued to linger after the team was swept at the hands of the Wizards the following year. By the time Toronto won their first playoff series since 2001, the Nets had quickly become awful, their nucleus now scattered across the league, and the opportunity for revenge was gone. It felt good to watch the Raptors beat up on hapless Nets team during regular season games, but it was not quite a true redemption.

Today, only Kyle Lowry remains from that feel-good Raptors squad, and only two players from the 2014 Nets are still in the league at all. But even beyond the teams’ respective rosters, the circumstances of the matchup have changed drastically — for the first time, the Raptors are the ones with the extensive postseason experience, while the NBA-bubble Nets are young and prone to mental hiccups. So then, let’s not kid ourselves: barring an upset of unfathomable proportions, the 2020 Nets will not beat the defending-champion Raptors. Even a six-game series seems impossible.

But the Brooklyn Nets of the bubble, while not the most talented or star-studded of teams, have shown a surprising edge and competitiveness, going 5-3 in the seeding games. They may not have any (healthly) All-Stars, but they play with a nothing-to-lose mentality, led by the dangerous Caris LeVert. The Nets can certainly give the Raptors a couple scares.

The idea of a rivalry during this pandemic is somewhat odd; there will be no fans booing in arenas and no rallies at Jurassic Park. The energy will come from what is happening on the court, and anything like the excitement of jeering Vince Carter or Game 7 in 2014 seems unlikely.

But in some ways, this series has the makings of a classic Raptors-Nets battle: one team consists mostly of seasoned vets while the other is young and looking to prove themselves; a bunch of the games are on NBA TV on weekday afternoons and the Nets won’t have any fans at their home games. Some things just never change.

With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving’s returns looming over the horizon, this series may very well be the prologue to the next iteration of the Raptors-Nets rivalry. It’ll be fun to watch Toronto vs. Brooklyn in the playoffs again, and will serve as a reminder of how far the Raptors have come since that magical, but short-lived run with DeRozan, Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and co.

Hopefully the Raptors will finally avenge their postseason losses to the Nets. Oh, and most importantly: