Skip to main content

Basketball For the first time in Raptors history, this franchise doesn’t feel like the NBA’s poor country relation

Some teams put an exclamation point on a victory. On Tuesday night, the Toronto Raptors knocked the Orlando Magic’s teeth out with their keyboard.

This series was a proper five-game kicking, the sort unseen in Raptors’ history. It wasn’t just its brevity. It was its brutality.

Toronto started the game on a 28-7 run. Every single one of those baskets seemed to be a lay-up. At one point, Pascal Siakam gave up on a cut to the basket and blind-passed to Marc Gasol. Why? Just because.

Story continues below advertisement

The Raptors won 115-96, a score that does not reflect how one-sided it was. Most of the 4-1 series played that way.

The margins of victory are different this year, but they’re not what’s changed. What’s changed is that the Raptors have stopped trying so hard.

Not the players, of course. They’re trying. Some of them are trying at truly elite levels.

Toronto Raptors cruise past Orlando Magic in historic NBA series win

Sound familiar? Maple Leafs lose Game 7 in Boston for third time in seven years

Opinion: The Leafs have plenty of perspective, but with all their improvements, they still don’t have ‘it’

But the club writ large. For the first time in Raptors history, this franchise doesn’t feel like the NBA’s poor country relation.

That feeling apparently transcends international borders.

This series was over a couple of days ago. Everyone came back to Canada to play out the string. However, you are supposed to at least pretend this is still a competition. That’s how they sell all those ads.

No one could bring themselves to pretend.

Story continues below advertisement

The Orlando media asked their own coach how proud he was about the season his team has had, which is to suggest that it is over. They asked him this during his pre-game news conference.

“I’m not thinking about it,” Magic coach Steve Clifford lied.

Most of the rest of Clifford’s comments – pre- and post-game – were paeans to the brilliance of the Raptors.

“This is by far the best they’ve had here in this stretch,” Clifford said. “This is a terrific team. Terrific team.”

Clifford talked up the Raptors’ balance, their ruthlessness and their championship chances. It wasn’t a concession speech. It was a job interview.

On the other side, Raptors coach Nick Nurse said the only way he could see his team improving was being uniformly excellent “for the full 48 minutes.” Which is impossible. Which they went out and did.

Story continues below advertisement

This was still pre-game. Nurse then started in on the Maple Leafs (does that hurt?), wishing them luck and gushing about coach Mike Babcock.

Nurse is sitting up there before tipoff wearing a baseball cap with an “NN” logo – his own initials – laying his blessings on the hockey team in Canada and you’re thinking, ‘Wait, are the Raptors big league now?'

Yes, I guess they are.

As a general rule, this country doesn’t have big-league teams. It has teams that play in the big leagues, which isn’t the same thing. Canadian sports teams have no swagger.

The Leafs have some. Not much. Some. The Canadiens have more. The Blue Jays once had a bit and now have a double-limp instead. But that’s it. None of those teams have ever had much south of the border.

The Raptors were always the worst offender. Even when good, they couldn’t help but be the keeners of the NBA. This is the franchise a broadcaster once sniffed was “the world champions of giving away free T-shirts.”

Story continues below advertisement

Not so long ago, the Raptors really cared about those T-shirts. Hung on the back of every seat in the arena, the team created a brand-new look for each home playoff game. That’s a lot of T-shirts. And these were pretty nice T-shirts – in particular, many of us enjoyed the one featuring the psychopathic beaver.

During this playoff run, it’s the same T-shirt every time. This T-shirt is derivative in its design, dreary in its execution (e.g. no fauna of any sort and definitely no beavers) and mediocre in its quality. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but this is a pretty terrible T-shirt.

If you spend a few hundred bucks on basketball tickets in Toronto and want a nice T-shirt to mark the occasion, you’re going to have buy one.

That’s big league.

The Toronto Raptors are heading to the second round of the NBA playoffs. Toronto crushed Orlando Tuesday night to complete a 4-1 series victory over the Magic. Raptors players and coaches were happy with the team's performance following a Game 1 loss. The Canadian Press

The Raptors have turned down the volume on the ‘We’ve arrived! For real this time! Okay, this time! All right, this …’ soundtrack. They don’t spend whole news conferences telling you how much they believe in their group (which is another way of saying that you don’t).

They are zen in their outlook, detached in their approach and a little bit big for their britches. Great teams often are.

Story continues below advertisement

The human embodiment of this big-leagueness is Kawhi Leonard. You could break down all the parts of his game that are special, but it’s easiest to say that he does what he likes out there. Leonard bullies people.

On Tuesday, he scored 27, hit five three-pointers and was a plus-38 for the evening. It still didn’t feel as though he pushed himself very hard.

Leonard’s unshowy self-confidence spread osmotically through the team during the Magic series. Toronto used to be a group of guys as steady as a shaken bag of cats. Every game tightened up late. Not one killer in the bunch.

There are a couple of them out there now, but only because Leonard plays the role of Red Baron. Show him the other team’s best player and he makes straight for him.

Leonard for DeMar DeRozan was a great trade when it was made. Then he started turning a bunch of lovable losers into closers and gave the franchise permission to take itself seriously. So what do you call it now? Best trade in civic history? We’re about to find out.

“I mean, we’re doing it now,” Leonard said afterward.

Story continues below advertisement

By his celebratory standard, that’s like dancing on a table top.

Toronto will face Philadelphia next. There’s a team with some unearned swagger. Orlando was a no-name club with no particular qualities. The 76ers have a bunch of names, but have achieved just as little and strut around like the Showtime Lakers.

That’s not just a good test, but the ideal foil for Toronto. These new Raptors won’t just want to beat Philadelphia. They’ll be out there looking to put the 76ers in their place.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter