So, Canada. The stereotypes abound for our neighbor to the north, from being polite to the point of apology to a seeming national mandate to wear flannel and grow beards to an unconscious appetite for maple syrup and Molson. At the moment, the country’s greatest export is a former teen actor-turned-living PBR&B emoticon who has enough #VIEWS to spawn several generations of memes. Innocuous, vaguely socialist and definitely non-confrontational: this is the Canada we know and love°.
A nation with seven (7) NHL teams and only one NBA franchise has this season seen its hockey teams fail to produce a single playoff participant – when half the league goes to the playoffs – and its basketball team reach its final four. Thus far, the Toronto Raptors have played two seven-game series and are arguably lucky to have escaped both on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals. Nevertheless, Toronto did make it, and though the spectre of the league’s most dominant player awaits them, it would seem foolish to write off the resident reptilians.
Like their home country, the perception of the Raptors, at least until now, falls somewhere between general likeability and unspeakable apathy. Until this season, unless you were a Knicks¹ fan in 2001, you’ve never had any real reason to hate the Raptors because they’ve only ever won a single playoff series before now. On the other hand, there have been things to like; namely, Vinsanity and Chris Bosh.
In Dwane Casey’s fifth full season as head coach, Toronto set a franchise record for victories, surpassing the half-century mark for the first time on the way to 56. For the third year in a row, the Raptors claimed the Atlantic Division title, a remarkable feat despite the shambolic state of the rest of the division.
What seemed in the midst of Kyle Lowry’s and DeMar DeRozan’s combined shooting slumps during the team’s first two playoffs series to be, at best, a dream for another year has become a reality, and now, Toronto finds itself pitted against the most complete Cleveland Cavaliers team LeBron James has ever had behind him. Having fo-fo’d their way into consecutive sweeps of the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks, the Cavs seem to understand the gravity of their situation better than in the first year of the James-Kyrie Irving-Kevin Love era. Sans headband LeBron, of course, is the most dangerous man in the world with a basketball in his hands.
Yet, having made it this far, the Raptors remain the butt of playoff jokes. A CBSSports.com poll asking who would win the NBA championship went viral Tuesday when it seemed to write off Toronto as the city of “Other” rather than actually naming it. The poll prompted a response of righteous indignation from Toronto’s mayor, John Tory, who seemed to revel in the implication that CBS Sports, or the league, had so little faith in a Raptors championship that some jabroni social media manager deliberately “othered” the city so as to draw attention to it.
After Tory sent his letter to Sean McManus, the Chairman of CBS who no doubt personally crafted the inane poll concerning four groups of men playing a game for entertainment, it came to light that the poll had been on the site since Sunday,
when the Raptors still had yet to beat the Miami Heat and progress in the playoffs. Though they ultimately misplaced their anger, the city has a right to fume at being overlooked, at least on behalf of its professional basketball team.
As for the actual basketball, I mean, okay – it WILL be very difficult for Toronto to beat the Cavaliers, who are playing perhaps their best basketball of the season right now. Despite the arguably series-clinching play of a reborn Bismack Biyombo on Sunday against the Heat, the absence of Jonas Valanciunas should allow Cleveland to punish the Raptors on the boards in the early going.
Relying on two blokes, the aforementioned Lowry and DeRozan, each of whom had near-historically bad shooting slumps during the first round series against the Pacers, for the bulk of scoring is going to be…tricky, to say the least. Even at his best, DeRozan isn’t a terribly efficient shooter, more comfortable taking long-range twos than stepping out beyond the stripe. DeMarre Carroll hasn’t been the factor Toronto expected when it poached him from Atlanta, but then – maybe he is what the Hawks were missing when they handed LeBron & Co. the brooms.
Essentially, Toronto would have to play near-perfect basketball in four out of seven games to even have a chance to advance. Then again, counting out the Raptors is exactly what everyone has been doing for essentially the entirety of their existence. A Canadian team beating one of the league’s two most visible stars, a man whose shoe deal is apparently worth more than $1 billion (USD), on their way to the Finals would be like allowing the whipped cream on top to wholly consume the sundae. As we saw Monday night in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s takedown of the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena, basketball is a sport open to possibilities like this.
Now is the time to develop feelings about Toronto, the kind Drake would want you to express openly. Love them or hate them, but in a city which hosted among the coldest All-Star Weekends ever this season, it pays not to be lukewarm on the Raptors anymore, lest they spit in your face.
° Or, at least, like decently enough not to have a major party political candidate vow to build a wall keeping out immigrants should s/he become our leader. But I digress.
¹ Of course it was the Knicks