Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas has the charming habit of narrating his feelings out loud as they’re occurring to him.
“Embarrassed,” the 21-year-old muttered as he was wedged into a post-practice scrum on Monday afternoon.
He blinked while those in the moist huddle settled in on top of each other.
“Sweating,” Valanciunas said, apropos of nothing.
(Another standout quote, on the topic of being chirped by Brooklyn Net Kevin Garnett, perhaps the most vocally relentless competitor in all of professional sport: “I don’t speak English. So it’s okay.”)
Valanciunas is the only member of the Toronto team who is incapable of adopting the correct, boring pose about where this playoff series is headed. It’s going the wrong way.
For the Raptors, beyond their own deficiencies, that’s down to the fact no one outside Canada wants them to win.
The Raptors’ first playoff game was broadcast by ESPN. It was the first Toronto game shown all year long on the NBA’s preferred U.S. network. Some teams represent a business opportunity. In big media terms, the Raptors are an opportunity cost.
If it could afford to be honest, the league would be out in public planting pins in a Raptors voodoo doll. A second-round matchup between Brooklyn and Miami is the most lucrative possible series before the final. Outside of Florida, a Toronto-Miami tilt will draw American viewers like Poker After Dark.
This is the grey moment when you begin to consider the possibility of conspiracies.
After the fourth quarter of Game 1, it certainly looked like the refs had made their choice. The Nets drew four shooting fouls in that frame and made eight free throws – the margin of victory. The Raptors drew none.
Throughout the north-of-49 broadcast, TSN analyst Jack Armstrong was stoking national outrage by repeatedly drawing attention to that fact.
“I’m surprised, but I’m not shocked,” Armstrong said Monday, after a couple of days reflection.
Officiating bias is an evergreen topic with the Raptors, though it had faded during the team’s strong run through the 2014 calendar year.
It’s a problem again now.
“I’m not going to comment on the officiating, except to say I went back to look at the calls [on tape] and we didn’t get any. That’s unusual,” coach Dwane Casey said.
The Raptors are a rhetorical marvel. GM Masai Ujiri introduced us to the non-apology apology. Now Casey is perfecting the no-comment comment.
For decades, basketball officials have operated inside a star system. Stars get all the benefit of the doubt on calls. It’s still a wonder to watch LeBron James’s stuttering amazement when he clotheslines an opponent on the way to the rim and gets called. Scrubs? Scrubs aren’t allowed to brush anyone on the defensive end, and they need their hands snapped off on offence.
You become a star by virtue of visibility. The refs spend most of their working lives on the road. They watch a lot of late-night SportsCenter shows in Residence Inns across the U.S. (NBA officials covet Marriott points with even more carnal intensity than journos.)
They decide who matters the same way fans do – based on whom they see most.
On that score, the Raptors are the most invisible team in the NBA. Despite the emergence of players like Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors are still treated like a D-League side that wandered on to the wrong court.
“We’ve accepted that all year long,” forward Patrick Patterson shrugged. “For us to think it’s going to change in the playoffs, we’re fooling ourselves.”
Winning this thing was always a big ask. The Raptors are pressing against more than a savvy, deep and skilled team. They’re pushing against broader forces.
If this Nets team flames out in the first round, it’s bad for the league: After regular-season implosions by marquee teams in New York and L.A., it causes further chaos in the league’s primary markets.
The refs aren’t crooked, but they’re human. They know how things work. They know what’s good for the brand. If they can help without crossing an internal ethical line, history has proven they will.
“We can’t expect anything,” guard Greivis Vasquez said, parroting the unspoken official policy. “This is the playoffs. We’re playing against vets. They’ve been in this league. They earned that respect. We can’t use the referees as an excuse.”
Well, they could. They probably should. But it wouldn’t do any good. In order to turn this series, the Raptors will have be several levels better than the Brooklyn Nets.
They want to be seen as outsiders. Unlike so many other teams that inhabit that space, they also have to deal with its realities.
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