TORONTO — Thank you for coming to today’s announcement. I will dispense with the small talk and just get to it: I have built a time machine. It only has one setting, which allows the user to go back to March 16. Of this year. So, two weeks and change.
It is a limited time machine. Baby steps, I say. Maybe if Elon Musk wasn’t so focused on sending a rocket to Mars and instead was shooting one to, like, Tucson, he wouldn’t be making bankruptcy jokes.
Anyway, this time machine. The funny thing about going back to March 16 is that it gives you a wholly different perspective on the Toronto Raptors.
“Raptors pass test against league’s best,” one local headline had read a week earlier, after the home team had beaten the Houston Rockets to end their 17-game win streak. One of ESPN’s most well-respected basketball analysts wrote that the Raptors were “closer peers to the Western Conference superteams than to anyone in the East.” Even noted curmudgeon Charles Barkley was on board: “The Raptors and the Cavs are the two best teams in the East, but I’m going with the Raptors,” he said on his U.S. studio show.
But even as Canada’s NBA team was basking in the rare admiration from across the border, and even as it was sitting with a 52-17 record and a seeming chokehold on the top playoff seed in the East, there was a lot of hedging going on.
That complimentary ESPN piece noted that “something special might be happening” and was headlined “The Raptors might be real and only getting better.” Other pieces included caveats about previous April misadventures and even Barkley, not normally one for nuance, included in his endorsement that “the only team that can beat them (in the East) is Cleveland because you have to beat them four times in a week.”
I know what you are thinking: what does any of this have to do with a time machine? Nothing, really. The thing about a two-week time machine is that it is good for shorting stock because the President is about to launch a trade war with China and also for a little basketball analysis.
And on that latter point, there is this: as much as it is starting to feel like the roof has utterly caved in on the Raptors — who have lost five of eight since March 16, including two to the Cavaliers, entering Wednesday’s showdown with Boston — it also remains that even if this present swoon had never occurred, there were going to be doubts about this team. They are evident in all the ifs and buts that were being thrown their way even as they were dismissing all comers with ease. That the doubts have landed at their feet a little earlier than expected isn’t a huge development; they were always going to have to prove people wrong.
The doubts come from two places: their own past failures in the playoffs, and the looming presence of LeBron James, King of All He Surveys But Especially the Eastern Conference.
Both reservations are understandable. Amid all the praise of mid-March, some analysts suggested that Toronto’s reputation as playoff nose-divers was undeserved. The team has won more post-season games than anyone other than Cleveland and Golden State over the past two years, after all.
That’s a charitable outlook. Even if you wave away the 2014 first-round loss to a veteran Brooklyn team, the Raptors were swept in the first round the following year and struggled mightily in 2016. In that post-season, every time it looked like the Raptors had found their footing against a weaker opponent, they let them back into the series. Then another first-round struggle last year against Milwaukee and a thumping from Cleveland, which takes a small asterisk because Kyle Lowry went down with an injury.
The best evidence that the Raptors underperformed came from their own management, which kept the core intact but blew everything else up, including the team’s style of play. The question of whether this group, armed with that new style, could perform better in the playoffs is the same today as it was in October and will be two weeks from now.
The LeBron conundrum will be even harder to solve. His Cleveland team is the weakest group he has led in a decade, and was blown up itself mid-season, but LeBron and 11 NBA players chosen at random would be a formidable playoff force. That’s not an exaggeration for comic effect. He’s that good. LeBron could take any team in the East to seven games with his left hand in a plaster cast. (Maybe a mild exaggeration. Six games.)
Should the Raptors meet the Cavs in the post-season, home-court advantage would be a huge asset, given their struggles at Quicken Loans Arena. Even without home court, though, Cleveland could very well be the favourite, which almost never happens in the NBA.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves with those specific doubts. Whoever they end up playing when the post-season begins, the Raptors will first have to answer the doubts about themselves.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a time machine to enter, and some stocks to short.
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @scott_stinson