Yes, it’s a contradiction in terms, but life is complicated: Friday night, the Toronto Raptors won the biggest wait-and-see game in their comparatively brief existence.
The Raptors are only 20 years old. The NBA itself is 49 years older than Canada’s one active NBA organization. One shouldn’t have expected the Raptors to win an NBA title in those first two decades. Yet, in 20 years, the franchise has claimed only one playoff series victory, in the 2001 first round. That’s a paltry record of achievement, even for a relatively new franchise. It fits Toronto’s largely snake-bitten sports history since the Maple Leafs won hockey’s Stanley Cup in 1967. In the subsequent 49 years — with no NFL team residing in the city — only the 1992 and 1993 Blue Jays have given Toronto a championship in one of the four major North American sports leagues.
Torontonians in the present day and age expect something to go wrong. The city — as a basketball metropolis — is waiting for the NBA playoffs, along with everyone else. Hope-filled regular seasons have come and gone before, only to lead to crushing playoff defeats at both ends of the spectrum of pain. A dime-thin difference separated the Raptors from the Brooklyn Nets in a seven-game loss in 2014. That was the excruciatingly close gut punch, the achingly dramatic way to exit in the first round. The next year, the Raptors followed the other extreme path to the golf course, getting humiliated in four largely lopsided games against the broom-wielding Washington Wizards.
Too much pain has visited Toronto sports fans in the previous two NBA postseasons. Too much agony has crashed upon the Raptors’ fan base for the memories of recent playoff exits to be ignored. The franchise is a heavy favorite to win one playoff series, and to be fair to the franchise, that would mark unmistakable progress in general manager Masai Ujiri’s efforts, no matter what else might unfold this spring. Yet, it is not unreasonable to say that if the Raptors can’t at least make the first Eastern Conference Finals series in their history this year, the postseason will be, on balance, a failure.
So much of what the Raptors are doing right now, at the end of February — when the stakes aren’t nearly as high as in May — is not exactly meaningless. However, the Raptors’ actions in the present moment are marked with a large-print label: WAIT AND SEE. No matter what they do in winter, it will be measured against April and May. Let’s not even talk about June, because in order to reach that month, the Raptors will have to go through the team they played Friday night in the Air Canada Centre.
It didn’t mean everything, but it did mean something: The Raptors needed to see where they stood relative to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
While the Cavs know they can turn on the jets in May — as they did last year, and as every LeBron James team has done since 2011 — the Raptors stand on new ground. They needed to know how they measured up against the prohibitive Eastern Conference favorites.
Naturally, this discussion has to be viewed in context relative to the coming playoffs, but on one night, given all other circumstances, the Raptors had to like what they saw. It’s a wait-and-see situation, but the waiting will be a little easier for the Raptors and their fans to deal with.
The alternative outcome would have been so much worse.
Stop for a moment and consider how shattering it would have been if the Toronto Raptors hadn’t won this game on Friday.
Kyle Lowry’s best game as a Raptor would have been wasted. The Raptors would have failed to take advantage of a version of Kyrie Irving which — after the weekend’s bed-bug episode in Oklahoma City — is clearly not up to par.
Toronto did not get anything close to Cleveland’s best offensive performance. New cog Channing Frye — seen (quite reasonably) by general manager David Griffin as a player who can improve the Cavs’ floor spacing and create a much healthier dynamic at the offensive end of the floor — did not leave a large imprint on this game, scoring three points in 12 minutes.
The Cavs, determined to win a title while LeBron is still close to the height of his powers — entrusted their team to Tyronn Lue.
Toronto — had it failed to win — would have lost the ability to plant at least a small seed of doubt into the minds of the Cavs, given the jarring nature of a midseason coaching change for a 30-11 ballclub which was leading its conference.
The Raptors didn’t have to win this game. They know the real journey begins in seven weeks. Yet, for all the “wait-and-see” dimensions of Friday’s compelling clash, Toronto could have taken a psychological hit had it failed to prevail.
In a certain sense, the value of Friday’s result for Raptors lies not necessarily in their ability to win, but in the unvarnished fact that they didn’t lose.
Is that an entirely semantic distinction? Perhaps. Yet, didn’t this article start with a reference to life’s contradictions and complexities?
We’ll revisit this game in a couple of months. We’ll see just how much it did — or didn’t — mean. For now, though, simply consider this: Toronto has given its hopes a chance to breathe for a while. Moreover, it has done so by overcoming a night in which DeMar DeRozan — plagued by the flu — missed each of his first 10 field goals. In the same breath (word choice intentional), the Raptors have given the Cavaliers’ worries — about Frye, about Kyrie’s defense, and about Lue’s coaching chops — room in which to breathe as well.
Winning this game wasn’t absolutely essential for Toronto.
Not losing this game could amount to something substantial for the Raptors when the playoffs arrive.
We’ll just have to wait and see, but the view in Toronto is certainly a lot more beautiful on Saturday morning than it otherwise could have been.