Before the Toronto Raptors’ game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night, Drake came out to his seats early. He never does that.
He arrived carrying a pair of gaudy championship belts, one of Milwaukee’s favourite props. Drake hugged concessionaires and took selfies with anyone bold enough to approach. When the Bucks showed up, he and the Raptor mascot waved their belts around like two guys looking to kick something off.
Over on the other side of the floor, superfan Nav Bhatia was hugging Bucks in between their turns in the layup line. Does this guy own shares in the team or something? Because that is the only way to explain how he treats an NBA court like it’s his living room.
The whole thing is goofy and weird and a lot of fun. Is anyone having any more fun than the Toronto Raptors right now?
They weren’t having so much fun after losing to the Bucks 108-97 on Tuesday, but it was still more fun than the alternative.
This is turnaround week in Toronto – a new tradition I am inventing right now. It’s when locals who are interested in, but not obsessed with, sports begin to shift their primary allegiance.
From September to February, they are Leafs-first fans. You’d have to be hard-hearted not to want to see the hockey club do something. The Leafs are so sad and pathetic, like a dog that’s been caught eating out of the trash. It’s difficult to doubt them whenever a season is just starting. It would be cruel.
But by mid-winter, you’ve gotten tired of their act. The one-night-on, one-night-off approach to their work. The explanations that are, in fact, excuses.
By February, you realize the Leafs are as Leafsy as ever, and will only disappoint you in the end.
Then there’s the fun factor. The Leafs have none. They absorb fun like a black hole. No fun may escape their immediate vicinity. Instead, they give off a pungent combination of anxiety and irritation. As the season goes sideways, the smell gets stronger.
Eventually, there’s a tipping point. Shortly after the Leafs were blown out by an employee from the maintenance department, the Raptors were winning a game by the biggest margin in franchise history. It was hard not to notice the contrast.
Hence, turnaround week – those few days near the end of the season when reasonable people give up on a loser and turn instead to a proven winner.
Pointing out that the Raptors game experience is completely different from the Leafs version is not a shopworn comparison. One features noise and happiness. The other does not.
But the gulf is widening now that the Raptors have a championship.
There’s a looseness to a Raptors game night that didn’t used to feature. As if everyone in attendance isn’t terribly bothered with wins and losses. They’re just here to crow about the title.
In the way they approach their work, the Raptors are the anti-Leafs. They are plainly enjoying themselves and each other. They have nothing to prove, and therefore no pressure to live up to. Every game they win this year is icing.
There are moments of comedy and silliness at Raptors games that you’d never get at a Leafs game (as long as we aren’t talking about the final score).
On Tuesday night, it was Fred VanVleet (generously listed at 6 foot 1) contesting a jump ball with Brook Lopez (a seven-footer). VanVleet wasn’t even close. The crowd cheered anyway.
It was Matt Thomas and Chris Boucher outscoring Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton in the first half.
It was the sense throughout that though Milwaukee has the best record in the NBA and Toronto no longer has Kawhi Leonard, the hex the Raptors put on Antetokounmpo last May is still holding. Shutting him down for long stretches – putting that idea in Milwaukee’s mind going forward – was far more important than a final score.
“I’ve got a couple of ideas tonight that I think I want to look at,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said beforehand. “I don’t have any idea if they’re any good or not.”
Can you imagine a Leafs coach saying something like that? Impossible. Hockey is serious business that must be taken very seriously. Especially while you are steadily losing.
Around the time the Leafs are beginning to think that it’s time to get off vacation and back into a rink, the Raptors and Bucks will probably be meeting in the Eastern Conference final.
On the evidence of Tuesday night, the result of that encounter is a toss-up. It is beginning to dawn on you that while the Raptors aren’t title favourites, they have as good a shot as anyone else. They’re that sort of team.
For all the sports suffering that has gone on in this town, has there ever been a moment quite so dissonant as this one – with one team nearing terminal velocity while another breaks orbit? No. Not with a gulf of quality and perception quite this wide. The emergency goalie made sure of that.
This could be the overarching story of Toronto sports in the 2020s. If free agency breaks right for them in the next couple of years, the Raptors could be a dynasty. The Leafs, laden with high-end, high-cost talent, could be an all-time bust. And that would be by the Leafs’ standards, which is really saying something.
The difference between the two is more than talent, coaching or roster building (though it is all those things). It’s not heart, though there is something to that, too.
It’s fun. One team is determined to have it. The other is too cool for it.
Do you like hanging around with people who aren’t fun? Well, don’t worry. You won’t have to for much longer.