TORONTO — Kawhi Leonard was asked a perfectly logical question on Friday afternoon about whether the addition of so many players who were not part of previous Raptors playoff struggles would help this team get over the hump.
“What hump?,” he said.
I mean, we know you are new here and all, but surely you have spent some time around a television.
Leonard, the guy who was brought to Toronto specifically because the Raptors Playoff Express kept ending up in a ditch with a cracked windshield and smoke pouring out from under the hood, would not take the bait. He said this team had some experienced guys, and now it had some other experienced guys, and all of that was good.
It fell to Danny Green, the guy who came with Leonard from San Antonio, to acknowledge the dinosaur in the room, as it were: That the Raptors, for all the success and the 50-win seasons and the ascension to a truly admirable NBA franchise, have only had over the past five seasons a playoff series with one of two outcomes: a harder-than-expected win, or a loss. They have never had a series that didn’t involve doubt, or a creeping sense of dread, or as was the case with the last couple of dismissals by the Cleveland Cavaliers, full-on shame.
Green said it would probably be helpful that the newcomers wouldn’t have that baggage. They have their own experiences, while the long-time Raptors “have a little more of a chip on their shoulders.”
Marc Gasol, the trade-deadline acquisition whose arrival meant we couldn’t ask, on the eve of Game 1 of the first round, Jonas Valanciunas about all those chip shots he missed in the final moments of Game 1 of the second round last year, said all of that stuff was meaningless. “It’s irrelevant, what happened in the past,” he said.
That might be the case for him, and Leonard and Green, but it will be there in the minds of some of those on the floor with them, and in the memories of the 20,000 or so souls in the seats at Scotiabank Arena, who would love a playoff matchup that did not include the usual helping of angst.
They have never before been so lucky. Unlike the upset specials so routinely observed in the NHL and MLB, the NBA playoffs lean heavily toward chalk in the early rounds. Over the past five post-seasons, the top two seeds in each conference, not including the Raptors, have compiled a 73-21 record in the first round. Toronto, as the two-seed in 2016 and the one-seed last year, has managed an 8-5. The Raptors have also lost three series over that same period in which they had home-court advantage, even though NBA teams have a win probability at home of about 65 per cent in the playoffs. They have just never done it easily, these guys.
Last year, as the playoffs were set to begin at the former ACC against Washington, there was much talk about the Raptors’ abysmal 1-12 record in series openers. Kyle Lowry said it weighed on them a little. “I mean, we’ve lost a lot of Game 1s,” he said, matter-of-factly. Dwane Casey, then the head coach, said he didn’t think effort had been the issue, but that it was probably more of mental thing. They got tight, they pressed, they passed up shots they would normally take. “It’s a phenomenon,” Casey said then, and frankly the supernatural was as good an explanation as any for the problems that had befallen them in the playoffs.
Then the Raptors went out and won a Game 1, finally. A few weeks later, we had been reminded that the team’s playoff problems weren’t about ghosts or demons or vague intangible issues. It was because they lacked the crucial pieces for a deep run. Their best scorer, DeMar DeRozan, could be swallowed up by a top defender, they couldn’t stop elite perimeter scorers, and they didn’t have any kind of answer for LeBron James.
And so, kaboom. In turning over the roster, the front office brought in a high-end individual scorer in Leonard and added defence all over the place in Green and Gasol. The DNA of this team is utterly unlike previous versions, and the NBA has noticed. Even last year, after a 59-win season, there was a sense around the league that the DeRozan-Lowry-Casey core had to prove that it was for real. It was not. This time, while there are several great teams at the top of the East, the Raptors are getting a least a little Finals buzz. There is no LeBron on the road ahead, ready to swat them into the gully.
It’s irrelevant, what happened in the past
Nick Nurse said on Friday that his team is not looking back.
“I think the best thing is that nobody in our circle, and in this building, and not very many people around are trying to live in playoffs past,” he said. “Nobody’s talking about it, nobody’s talking about LeBron, or anything.”
Since the first round of the NBA playoffs went to a best-of-seven in 2003, the top two seeds in each conference are a combined 60-4 in those series. The Orlando Magic may have had a good couple of months, but they shouldn’t stop the Raptors from adding to the good side of that ledger.
But, first there are games to play. Nurse said he liked what Lowry had said a day earlier, when he was asked if this was the best Raptors team he had ever been on.
“He said,‘I don’t know yet’,” Nurse said. Then the coach had an addendum: “And neither do I and neither do any of you.”
It is time to find out.