Buck Up

Game 1 missteps have become a tradition for the Toronto Raptors-Untangling the history & why they need to reverse the trend

Courtesy: Getty Images

Spring is a welcome time of year in Toronto. People come out of hibernation as moods improve, patios start filling up (even if it’s still too cold) and the streets are bustling with activity. Spring also means it’s time for the NBA playoffs, and Toronto hoops fans have happily grown accustomed to the Raptors being in the postseason. This year they will attempt to replicate (or perhaps exceed) last season’s successful run to the Eastern Conference Finals, beginning against the Bucks on Saturday. This brings us to a mid-April proceeding that’s become the norm in the city.

Losing game 1 at home ….on a Saturday

The Raptors have held home court advantage four times in the playoffs since 2007, and like clockwork have dropped game 1 at the ACC in each case. Starting behind the 8-ball is not a situation that works out well in most cases. According to whowins.com, the winner of the opener takes the best-of-seven series 77% of the time. The personnel has changed (28 different Raptors have taken the court), there’s been two different coaches (Sam Mitchell is 0–1, & Dwane Casey is 0–3), but the franchise can’t get over what appears to be initial stage fright. This stretches even further back. Since their inception the Raptors are 0–8 in playoff openers. Why is this the case? The recent history behind it has been eventful and absorbing.

2007 — Nets 96, Raptors 91
Courtesy: Zimbio

Finally emerging out of the dystopia created by Rob Babcock’s ill-fated Vince Carter trade in 2004, newly appointed GM Bryan Colangelo revamped a Raptors squad that unexpectedly won 47 games and the Atlantic division, only to set up a playoff series against….Vince Carter and his New Jersey Nets. There was no love lost between VC and the city at this point.

The crowd serenaded Carter all afternoon with chants of: LETS GO RAPTORS!! (Pause) VC SUCKS!! On the court the fans vitriol might have affected Carter, who put up a dud (5–19 FG), but the Nets were aided by Richard Jefferson’s 28 points to beat a predictably inexperienced/timid Raptors squad who received an okay performance from all-star Chris Bosh (22 points, 5 boards)

The on-court action was forgettable, but one blunder from the organization stood out. The Raptors made a ridiculous decision to give out red t-shirts to the fans even though the Nets were wearing red. It literally appeared to be a New Jersey home game! Seriously, how does that even happen?

Series Result: Nets won 4–2

2014 — Nets 94, Raptors 87

Fast forward seven years to a new age of Raptors that captured Toronto’s imagination. Toronto flipped the script on what was supposed to be a lost season. The expectation was that the team would bottom out for a lottery pick (In hopes of drafting GTA-born/Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins), but the team rallied around GM Masai Ujiri’s mid-season trade that brought in Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, Chuck Hayes and John Salmons to go along with a core of Kyle Lowry, Demar Derozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson.

48 regular season wins, a #3 seed in the playoffs, a new #WeTheNorth rallying cry, and a home date with the Nets. Brooklyn was a veteran team in win-now mode, led by all-star Joe Johnson and former champions Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. In the week leading up to the game, fans were already riled up about the idea that the Nets were angling themselves for a date with the Raptors.

Saturday afternoon at Maple Leaf Square may have been sunny and warm, but the crowd was on fire from the get-go, with Ujiri sparking the blaze:

Masai’s f-bomb whipped an already blood thirsty crowd into a frenzy, and set the tone for a circus-like atmosphere: An electric 18,900 spectators chanted KG SUCKS!! & REF YOU SUCK!! throughout the game, the shot & game clocks stopped working in the 3rd quarter and the contest itself was thrilling, yet sloppy.

Nerves seemed to get the best of the upstart Raps, who collectively shot under 40% and couldn’t make big plays down the stretch. Trailing by 5 with less than a minute to go, Pierce stuck the dagger:

In what unfolded as a captivating series, Toronto was foiled again by Pierce in the dying seconds of game 7. A heartbreaking defeat for the Raptors, but it was tough medicine they figuratively needed to swallow in order to grow moving forward.

Series Result: Nets won 4–3

2015 — Wizards 93, Raptors 86 (OT)
Courtesy: Bleacher Report

Expectations were high in 2014–2015. They had seemingly learned how to lose in the playoffs, more talent was added in the form of Lou Williams, and Drake was making tracks about the team. The season’s first two-thirds went off without a hitch: 37–17 record, a high powered offence, and late-game resiliency (#wethefourth)

The latter part of the campaign was a dumpster fire: They went 12–16 from mid-February on, played abysmal defensively (23rd in DRTG) and Kyle Lowry was hampered with a back injury heading into the playoffs. With that said, there seemed to be belief that the team could flip on the proverbial “switch” and take care of the Wizards.

Another beautiful Saturday afternoon was once again paired with hostility like a fine cabernet & a 12-oz New York strip. Pierce, a thorn in the Raptors’ sides, was now a Wizard. He made headlines earlier in the week by saying the team lacked “it”, prompting Ujiri to respond at the pre-game rally:

Once again Masai went out on a limb for the team, and once more the team couldn’t back it up on the court. Pierce played the role of quintessential sports villain, drowning out 2.5 hours of PAUL PIERCE SUCKS! chants to drop a game-high 20 points. Unable to find their stride offensively, Lowry and Derozan combined for a measly 22 points on 27% shooting. Despite the poor performances of the their stars, the Raptors rallied from a 15-point deficit in the 4th to force OT, keyed by a Vasquez tying 3-pointer with 25 seconds to go. Overtime saw the offence stuck in neutral, scoring just four points as game 1 slipped out of reach. Toronto floundered the rest of the way, suffering a sweep with only game 3 being competitive.

Series Result: Wizards won 4–0

2016 — Pacers 100, Raptors 90
Courtesy: Inquirer
  • A franchise-record 56 wins
  • Two all-stars at the peak of their powers (Derozan & Lowry)
  • A gritty/deep supporting cast
  • Additional year of experience
  • Home court advantage
  • Paul Pierce didn’t play for Indiana

The 2015–2016 regular season went as well as any Raptor fan could have hoped. The last two years of disappointment were in the rear view mirror, and everything was set up to finally win a best-of-seven for the first time. Once again Toronto was relegated to its usual crusty time slot (12:30pm on Saturday), but that was secondary in importance. Winning was paramount in earning league wide respect, and proving the team was for real. Anything besides a series win would be a disaster. Fans and experts were confident.

The game itself was groundhog day at the ACC. Following up on the last two openers, another nervous looking Raptors squad couldn’t find their rhythm offensively and inflicted damage on themselves with 19 turnovers. Paul George was sensational, torching the Dinos for 33 points and locking up Derozan. George Hill blanketed Lowry the entire game. Indy’s role players were playing defence and hitting threes. Despite a tie-game halfway through the 4th quarter, the air came out of the building well before that. Fans were resigned to witnessing an opening game choke-job again. However…

Series Result: Raptors won 4–3

Unlike the teams before them, last year’s Raptors scraped their way to a hard-fought win in 7 games. That ugly brand of basketball carried Toronto to within a couple of wins of a spot in the finals, but the line between advancing from the 1st round and losing in humiliating fashion was a fine one. The Raptors needed to mount a furious rally in game 5 and had to grind out a narrow win in game 7 to avoid a disastrous exit.

On paper, the Bucks present less danger than the Pacers did last season. Indy had an elite defensive unit that was built to snuff out the Raptors perimeter threats like Lowry (Hello, George Hill) and Derozan. Combining the playmaking ability of a star like George with that defence was a stiff cocktail for the Raps to sip on.

However, Milwaukee can’t be overlooked. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a budding superstar who can do everything asked of him on both ends of the court. Jason Kidd has already gotten the better of Dwane Casey in a playoff series before as a coach. Khris Middleton, Greg Monroe and Malcolm Brogdon have proven to be valuable contributors this season. The Raptors are more talented and more experienced than the Bucks, but we’ve yet to see them breeze through an opponent in the playoffs.

For that to happen, they need to win game 1.