TORONTO — Among the ways in which the Toronto Raptors have evolved this season, we can add this: they are now being only mildly disrespected.
There had been talk in basketball circles that, even as the Raptors rolled to the best record in the Eastern Conference and set a franchise first with 59 wins, they would be shunted to the nether regions of the NBA playoff schedule, as per tradition. A 12:30 p.m. start at home on Saturday, when most of America hadn’t even realized the playoffs had started yet, was a distinct possibility.
But when the league released its schedule in the early hours of Thursday morning, Toronto was placed in a spot that mostly befits the best team in the East: a Saturday evening start (5:30 p.m. ET), with a second home game on Tuesday night, and then evening games the following Friday and Sunday in Washington. The early-game slots on the opening weekend went instead to Golden State-San Antonio (12 p.m. local time in California on Saturday) and Boston-Milwaukee (1 p.m. ET on Sunday).
That’s all fair enough. Had the Raptors been shafted again with the noon start on Saturday, even as the top seed, one could reasonably have asked why the NBA ever bothered to put a team in Canada.
It remains evident, though, that a good record does not translate to the Raptors being a hot TV property, at least in the United States. Game 2 at the Air Canada Centre will be broadcast in the U.S. on NBA TV, a cable channel only in the homes of basketball die-hards and people who are unaware their package includes it. Only two other series have an NBA TV game, the small-market clashes between Portland and New Orleans and Oklahoma City and Utah.
For Game 3 in Washington on April 20, ESPN has a double-header set up, Cleveland-Atlanta followed by Boston-Milwaukee. The Raptors and Wizards will instead appear over on ESPN2. (At least the NBA, unlike the NHL, has not resorted to putting any of its playoff games on the Golf Channel.) That the Raptors are moved higher up the dial isn’t new or surprising: a game with only one U.S. team will have fewer viewers in that country, and the NBA wants to keep advertisers happy.
But it’s also true that Toronto wouldn’t have been shoved over to those spots as automatically were it not for their recent playoff history. Although they have attracted much praise at times in this record-breaking season, the Raptors aren’t taken entirely seriously just yet. It has been an ongoing theme this year. Boston and Cleveland were heavy favourites to finish ahead of them, and their Las Vegas win total was set at 47, a number the team passed more than a month ago. (Coach Dwane Casey, unbidden, brought up that Vegas number when speaking to the media before the team’s final home game. It is clear the Raptors are aware of that perceived slight.)
When the Raptors dropped a close game to Golden State in early January, DeMar DeRozan aired grievances toward the officiating, after several close calls went against Toronto. “Being out there feels like you’re playing five on eight,” he said, which earned him a $15,000 fine, couch-cushion money for the All-Star guard. Two months later, after a loss to Oklahoma City that included a non-call on a DeRozan drive and several subsequent Raptors ejections, he was back at it, saying that Toronto was “used to going against the odds every step of the way.”
The team has even embraced the battle-for-respect idea a little bit, with both Sportsnet and TSN promoting Raptors playoff games with advertisements that centre on the theme. The one for TSN includes a clip of an NBA internet poll on possible East finals matchups that did not include the Raptors, even as they were leading the conference.
But if the Raptors are looking for motivation, they don’t have to look much further than the Wizards, who were comfortably in the sixth seed two weeks ago but wheezed to a 2-6 finish that included losses to Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta and Orlando, all of whom are not good. The loss to the Magic on Wednesday night assured Washington of a matchup against Toronto; a win would have put them in the seven seed, against the injury-depleted Boston Celtics. Washington rested star guard John Wall rather than use a full lineup in an effort to avoid Toronto. One can see the value of rest, especially since Wall has had injury problems this season, but would the Wizards have been so cavalier about that final game if they knew that LeBron James and the, uh, Cavaliers were waiting as the one seed?
Washington’s lack of urgency in trying to avoid Toronto only underscores the respect theme. Although this is a different Raptors team than the one swept by the Wizards three post-seasons ago, one could see why they might not fear Toronto.
It will be on the Raptors to turn that around. It is, as the television commercials say, time for the Raptors to prove it. If they struggle here again, they might as well slot themselves into the 12:30 game on the first playoff Saturday for next year, and the rest of time.
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