In the third quarter of what was becoming the most surreal sporting afternoon in recent Toronto history, the shot clocks mounted over each basket at the Air Canada Centre failed.
For the remainder of Game 1 between the Raptors and Brooklyn Nets, PA announcer Herbie Kuhn counted down the 24-second clock out loud. Rather than a hit a buzzer at the end, he yelled, “HORN.”
This is the way all my unpleasant human interactions will end from now on.
On Sunday, Raptors officials singled out the culprits – a visiting ESPN TV crew and a rogue technician who began randomly plugging plugs into other plugs, frying the whole system. Just like at your house! Without naming the network specifically, a Raptors official broadly alluded to the sports giant by saying, “Let’s just put it this way. They’re not the Worldwide Leader in Electricians.”
Add ESPN to Toronto’s growing Enemies List.
Based on the evidence of the first game, the Raptors are not going to win this series. The Nets – a team built specifically to thrive in hostile environs of the postseason – out-thought and outmuscled Toronto. The game was only close (94-87 for Brooklyn) because the Nets shot an abysmal 4-for-24 from three-point range. That won’t happen again.
The key matchup in the series is rangy Raptors forward Amir Johnson against future hall-of-famer Paul Pierce. Johnson sat for most of the fourth quarter, while Pierce ran wild. Johnson is clearly injured.
How’s your health, Johnson was asked Sunday.
“It’s good,” he said, in the sort of tone that confirms it isn’t good at all.
Without Johnson in top form, the Raptors are a defensive buffet and Pierce has an appetite. Can the Raptors still win this series? Sure. Will they win this series? I wouldn’t bet on it.
With reality bleeding in at the edges, the Raptors brain trust has begun treating this for what it is – a public-relations exercise.
It started Saturday with GM Masai Ujiri addressing a squealing crowd in Maple Leaf Square. As he was about to leave the stage, Ujiri screamed, “[Expletive] Brooklyn.” Behind him, MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke reacted with delight at his most prized employee’s naughtiness.
At halftime, an unruffled Ujiri compounded the insult with a prize-winning non-apology: “You know how I feel. I don’t like them, but I apologize.”
This was table-turning of the highest order. Brooklyn is the marquee-name here. The Nets are the $180-million (U.S.) bully. And the skinny kid from Toronto just walked over and put them in a headlock at the prom.
Afterward, Brooklyn’s bold-faced names didn’t how to react. They tried hauteur.
“I don’t even know who the GM is,” blank-faced Nets coach Jason Kidd said, unconvincingly.
“Really?” Pierce said when apprised of Ujiri’s warm Canadian welcome. “I’m shocked that [former Raptors GM] Bryan Colangelo would say that.”
Pierce, 36, couldn’t keep this act up for long. As Brooklyn arrived, the Internet was alive with mirth after a Toronto Sun cover advertised the match as “Raptors vs. Dinosaurs.”
Pierce claimed ignorance of the slight. Then, someone asked him if he’d ever experienced anything like the shot-clock fiasco.
“I don’t remember,” Pierce said. “Because I’m a dinosaur.”
Seriously – how much fun is this?
Beyond the winning, the key identifier of an important sports franchise is its ability to spin out stories. Players and coaches can hide in secondary markets. The worst of them go there to do exactly that.
But once they get to a New York or a Los Angeles, they suddenly feel a responsibility to say things. To be interesting. To pick fights.
It’s hard to say if this is a cause or an effect, but it hits you every time you walk into, say, the Yankees clubhouse. However cautiously they’ve carried themselves before, ballplayers morph into freewheeling raconteurs as soon as they put on the pinstripes.
That’s what the Raptors are doing here, in what may be a very limited timeframe. They’re using the playoff spotlight to mark themselves as a team that creates its own narratives. They are willing themselves to become big league.
Ujiri’s expletive is the next logical step in the team’s new ‘We The North’ marketing campaign. “Some would say we’re on the outside looking in …” the narration begins.
The easiest way to establish your outsiderness is swinging, sometimes wildly, at insiders.
Brooklyn, having no experience of defending its hipster credentials, is at a loss to respond (outside the hard court).
“Rather than mess with verbal barbs, I say it’s ‘Put up or shut up time, Toronto!’” Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams said in a prepared statement of response. He wants to bet a six-pack of craft brew on the series outcome.
You’re up one game already. And you want. To bet. A six-pack.
Oh, Brooklyn. You’re probably going to win this in the important, short-term way, but on one level at least, Toronto has taken a lot of long-term ground in the war.
Follow me on Twitter: @cathalkelly