The social-media universe is having a little fun at the Toronto Raptors’ expense, and the top-seeded team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference playoffs is doing its best to tune out the noise.
The Raptors have tumbled into a 0-2 series hole against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the same opponent who ended the Raps’ past two seasons. After losing two in a row in front of their home crowd this week, a flood of memes chiding the Raptors have bombarded the internet.
There’s everything from “LeBronto” jokes to “He The North” jabs, photoshopped images of James sitting on the edge of the CN Tower, being sworn in as Toronto’s new mayor, or posing with child-sized versions of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
“How do I feel about it? I don’t really [care]. I’m not paying attention to it,” said Raptors reserve point guard Fred VanVleet on Friday after the team’s last practice before they travelled to Cleveland. “I haven’t really seen or heard any of it. I’ve been tuned out to most of the outside world, to be honest with you. If we need that stuff to motivate us, we’ve got bigger problems to worry about.”
Isolating themselves from the barrage of media coverage and social-media banter seems unfeasible in today’s world, but the Raps are trying to remain in the bubble.
“I don’t have any social media on my phone. I deleted all the apps off my phone before the playoffs,” C.J. Miles said. “I don’t want no notifications, no pictures, no stories. It ain’t got nothing to do with what I’m doing.”
The task in front of them seems Herculean: win four out of the remaining five games in this series, against a team that has defeated the Raptors in their eight successive playoff meetings dating to the 2016 season, and then proceeded to the NBA finals. The four-time NBA MVP is picking up steam as the season goes on. James is averaging 34.4 points a game in the playoffs, along with 9.9 rebounds and nine assists. On Thursday, he delivered the first 40-point, 14-assist game in NBA playoff history.
But for the Raptors, viewing this as a giant-slaying mission isn’t part of the mindset.
“When we all retire that’s when you admire what he has done, but right now he’s the enemy and we have to do a better job of not being part of history,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “We’re the top team in our conference, we won 59 games, we won the conference. It’s not like we’re chopped liver or anything.”
The Raptors are focused on the glaring areas they can improve. They’re focused on the team that easily beat opponents in the regular season, zipped the ball, shot three-pointers with confidence, beat teams with their bench, and won enough games to earn the No. 1 seed.
“It’s harder to keep the pace up when you’re taking the ball out of the net every time. We’ve got to do a better job of making stops, maybe cause some turnovers, get out in transition a little more,” VanVleet said. “Things tend to slow down a little bit. Every possession is a huge possession. We definitely need to get out and speed things up a little bit.”
The Raptors hinted they could change their lineup for Saturday’s Game 3 after benching starting power forward Serge Ibaka following just 12 minutes of play in Game 2. They need to find ways to get more production from him.
“Like baseball hitters, some people go through ruts, and our job as a coaching staff and as a team is to help him out of it,” Casey said. “He’s our team member. We’re going to support him, we’re going to push him, we’re going to try to make things easier for him instead of putting dirt on him and saying he’s dead.”
Casey said he saw mettle from his players.
“The veterans, they understood. They spoke up in the film session, spoke up in our practice this morning,” said the coach. “They understand what we need to do now. The difference is between words and actually getting out there and doing it.”