Skip to main content

Before they were pancaked by the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night, the Raptors rolled Muggsy Bogues out to talk.

Why? No clue. By the end of this endless 20th-anniversary celebration, the Raptors have celebrated every parking-lot attendant in team history.

Bogues played 83 games in Toronto while being impressively short. Like, really, really short.

The man is a tiny rebuke to all the rest of us. Clearly, we all should have played in the NBA, but were either too tall or too lazy. Or something like that.

These days Bogues is a travelling NBA ambassador – India, the Philippines, China. He's just come back from Russia. But he knows what time it is.

"[The Raptors] shocked a lot of folks," he said. "And the East is not really that good."

That's the prevailing wisdom, but the East looks pretty damn good from the Atlanta perspective.

The Hawks should be in disarray. Their off-season was roiled by a racial row involving GM Danny Ferry. The club's up for sale.

Instead, they are a multi-layered behemoth. Al Horford is such a nightmare around the basket, Jonas Valanciunas essentially gave up trying to guard him five minutes in. Then Toronto coach Dwane Casey gave up on Valanciunas. It didn't get any beter.

Shootist Kyle Korver could throw a ball from the International Space Station and it would land in a cup on top of the Empire State Building two days later. As you roll down their bench, it just gets deeper and deeper. Casey suggested as many as four Hawks could be all-stars.

By the half, they'd run Toronto ragged with their relentless commitment to passing the ball no fewer than ten thousand times between shots.

The Raptors did not lead at any point in the game, and were hammered 110-89.

The East may not be any good, but the Hawks are very, very good. Toronto caught them napping early in the year, as Horford worked himself back into game shape following a season lost to injury. They don't want to see the Hawks too many more times. Or at all. This isn't a fair fight.

What the East is right now is five-team race to get into the top four. Two of Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago, Washington and Cleveland are going to have to play each other in April's first postseason round. The Raptors primary current mission is making sure they aren't one of them.

It's only January, but the Raptors are essentially guaranteed another division title. How bad is the Atlantic right now? Recently, Toronto went 4-6, and gained ground on their rivals.

What's required now is a clearly defined goal that isn't "Get to the playoffs."

The Atlantic title means they can finish no worse than fourth. Toronto's most crucial mission – finish no worse than third.

As of right now, the comically dysfunctional Cavaliers are in danger of mucking up that plan. It would be just Toronto's luck to finish third, and then have to face an irritated LeBron James in the first round of the playoffs.

"The Eastern Conference … is wide open, for the taking," Casey said before Friday's game. "That's what I keep telling our guys. The hardest thing right now is practice time. Practice versus rest."

That right there – that may be becoming a problem. Everyone around the club has already shifted into post-season mode. Recently, the Raptors stopped doing morning shootarounds on game days so that the players could get more sleep. Instead, they do walkthroughs in the late afternoon.

It's great that we're going to get to the post-season well rested, but you seriously fear for this team if they run into one of the East's better clubs.

The Raptors deserve to feel good about itself, but it's time to stop riding the city's good vibe through poor performances. Whatever Bogues thinks, nobody is "shocked" by the Raptors any more. They're a good team. That's about it – "good."

They've done nothing to suggest they are giant killers. Everyone in the league now respects them, but no one fears them. They've won winnable games, and not embarrassed themselves when they're overmatched.

Increasingly these days, they look overmatched. And occasionally embarrassed.

Now that DeMar DeRozan is back, there aren't any more excuses. This is a fragile time. If Toronto can't start beating big teams with their full roster, the incredible self-belief that's animated them for nearly a year now will begin to bleed away.

You could see that for long stretches in Friday's game. Down 20 for most of the second half, heads were dropping on the court. Even Kyle Lowry looked deflated.

After spending the first half of the season without any measurable objectives aside from "Keep being good," the Raptors have to find ways to demand more of themselves.

A decent first step might be publicly embracing the idea that they can win this conference. Enough with the old Raptors poor mouth. Great teams aren't afraid to speak their targets out loud, especially the ones they aren't sure they can meet.

If this club has a signature moment, it's GM Masai Ujiri very publicly throwing shade at Brooklyn last spring. Maybe Toronto could use another carefully orchestrated Ujiri meltdown right about now?

Or they could just start winning the unwinnable ones.

If the East really is as bad as everyone likes to say it is, it's time for the Raptors to prove they are capable of wringing all the necks in it, not just the weaklings'.