The 48 hours after Game 1 of the Philadelphia 76ers series were the high-water mark of the Toronto Raptors franchise.
Suddenly, everybody on this team was Michael Jordan at some stage of his career.
Pascal Siakam? Budding genius. Kyle Lowry? Veteran genius. Marc Gasol? Humble genius.
Head coach Nick Nurse transformed from a guy you’d never heard of with his own taste in haberdashery into Red Auerbach.
And Kawhi Leonard? The 21st century sporting love child of Hercules and Albert Einstein.
As a result of this pom-pom waving down south, the NBA odds hit tilt. Prognostication website FiveThirtyEight.com installed the Raptors as near co-title favourites with the Golden State Warriors.
(Don’t get too excited. These were the same guys that had Hillary Clinton as a mortal lock for the 2016 U.S. election.)
In market terms, you could feel the irrational exuberance taking over.
In Game 2, the Raptors sent out two teams to provide a pair of corrective notions. The first-half team was there to remind religious types what pride goeth before. The second-half team was there to remind Philadelphia that even when they play their toughest game, they are vulnerable.
The upshot – the Raptors lost the game 94-89. Danny Green missed a three-pointer with ten seconds left that would have tied it.
That it was that close was something in the neighbourhood of a miracle. In the first half, you were having a complete reconsideration of your reconsideration of two days before (which itself was a reconsideration of how you’d felt after Game 1 of the Orlando Magic series).
Leonard was still elite. He ended up with 35 points. Everyone else decided to take the first part of the shift off.
Disorganization and cheap fouls are one thing, but you can’t marry them to atrocious shooting. It may be a make-or-miss league, but you are meant to sink the occasional one even on an off night.
If you took Leonard out of the mix, Toronto shot 25 per cent for the half. Most NBA teams could make more buckets if you blindfolded them and had a guy stand under the rim shouting.
Toronto trailed by as many as 19 early. They scored only 38 points in the half.
During a midgame interview, Nurse told TNT, “I don’t think it went terribly in the first quarter.”
Is this particular form of coaching lunacy – one in which the man in charge can never say things were bad, even when they were blindingly obviously bad – particular to Toronto? Because coaches in other cities have found a way to speak a gentle truth. But not in this one.
The Raptors were terrible. A proper humiliation seemed inevitable.
At the half, Nashville Predator P.K. Subban wandered by the backstage video-cave where Raptors president Masai Ujiri watches games. He’d been sitting courtside for the egregious opening.
Subban was leaning in the door yelling, “It’s gonna happen! It’s gonna happen.”
It would have been a more rousing moment if Subban wasn’t headed down the corridor that leads to the underground parking.
But he had it almost right. It almost happened.
In the second half, Toronto reeled Philadelphia in. The difference? Leonard was still elite and all the other starters agreed to be average. The bench decided to continue their break.
From the tell-me-some-good-news homer perspective, the take-away is that Toronto played at something close to its bare minimum of competence and still almost won.
The bad-news take is that they had a chance to put their foot on the neck of a very dangerous team and instead gave them back home court advantage.
“We didn’t play well,” Lowry summarized. “They played really desperate.”
It sounds like an insult (and probably is an insult), but it’s also true.
Are the Raptors better than the 76ers? On the evidence of the first two games, yes. Are the Raptors better than the 1960s Bill Russell Boston Celtics? Apparently not.
Does that all mean anything if the Raptors come out anywhere close to the same way on Thursday in Philadelphia? Not in the least. This thing could still go either way.
Ahead of Tuesday’s game, Philadelphia coach Brett Brown played the poor mouth.
“We get that coming into Toronto, the overwhelming majority feel we’re not going to win,” Brown said. “We have to maintain our spirit.”
He started listing off all the Philadelphia papers and ESPN talking heads who’d picked the Raptors to win this series. It was a bit maudlin, but still impressive. Philadelphia was stealing Toronto’s underdog script. For one night at least, it worked.
Now the pressure shifts to Nurse. He hasn’t been asked to do much this post-season. Leonard’s been doing everybody’s job for them.
Now we’ll see how the Raptors adapt after a letdown.
If, in the fullness of time, the Raptors go on from here, Tuesday was an important step. It was a reminder to stay small and self-contained.
If they lose again Thursday, then it will start to feel like it was instead a serious misuse of emotional momentum.
The coach is responsible for maintaining that equilibrium. This is where we figure out which Raptors we’re really dealing with – the ones everybody thinks they are, or the ones they have a habit to returning to once everybody starts thinking that.
Editor’s note: (May 1, 2019) An earlier version of this story stated that the Toronto Raptors will be playing the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday. They are actually playing Thursday.