TORONTO — On Sunday night, the corporate honchos at ESPN sent out an email to their vast army of employees who work in the basketball sphere and reminded them to make sure their passports were up to date.
You know, in case the Toronto Raptors made the NBA Finals.
Zach Lowe, the excellent writer who mentioned this nugget on his podcast on Tuesday, noted that ESPN had never sent such a missive before.
It underscored two things: the prevailing opinion of a basketball team can change with whiplash-inducing speed in the playoffs. And, also, that after the Raptors had finally won a Game 1, coupled with LeBron James and the Cavaliers having been thoroughly thumped on their home court in their series opener against Indiana, suddenly the team from Toronto that was just waiting to be exposed as pretenders, was instead in the rare position of being taken seriously.
There will undoubtedly be a few more people checking their passports after Tuesday night. In a remarkable offensive display that made you wonder if Dwane Casey had turned into Don Nelson, the Raptors blew the Washington Wizards off the Air Canada Centre court by a score of 130-119 to take a 2-0 lead in a playoff series for the first time in franchise history.
One quarter was all the Raptors needed to prove that they weren’t letting their first Game 1 victory in 17 years go to their heads. They scored 44 points in the opening 12 minutes, breaking the previous franchise record for a playoff game by five points. They shot 59% from the field and an absurd 54% from three-point range, with six different Raptors knocking down shots from distance. They also had 10 assists on 16 baskets, making the opening frame, which they finished with a 17-point lead, basically the platonic ideal of the kind of basketball that team management envisioned when they remade the Toronto offence in the off-season: a whole lot of ball movement and all kinds of long-range bombing. DeMar DeRozan, who has been a bellwether for Toronto’s offensive evolution, shovelled a bunch of dirt on the old way of doing things, scoring 20 points in the first half alone that included three three-balls on five attempts.
This whole season has carried with it the question of whether DeRozan would revert to Classic Edition DeMar in the playoffs, shooting long two-pointers and trying to force drives to the basket even when there wasn’t much of an opening. Instead, those 20 first-half points also came with four assists. When they have struggled in playoffs past, it is usually because the offence stalled when their All-Stars couldn’t score. Through two games, everyone is scoring. Wizards coach Scott Brooks said before Game 2 that they would have to live with guys like Delon Wright and OG Anunoby shooting from beyond the arc; each of them made three-pointers in the opening quarter.
Washington would shave an 18-point deficit to single-digits early in the fourth, largely because guard John Wall, who had early foul trouble, was some kind of unstoppable, but the thing about huge halftime leads is they allow you some wiggle room. By the time the game ended, the only tragedy for Toronto was the tray full of beer that was spilled at courtside in the first half. Other than that 50 bucks worth of libations, a good night for the home fans all around.
And now, the caveats. The old cliché about a series not truly starting until a team loses on home court is not wrong, and the Raptors have said such things themselves in each of the last two playoff runs, after they twice went to Cleveland and promptly had their lunch money stolen in two straight games at Quicken Loans Arena. One of those times, they managed to make a series out of it. They know this whole thing could flip again, and with it the perception of them.
The challenge they have now is not letting the fact that they finally held serve on home court cause them to let up. This is who we are, Casey keeps saying. They need to keep being that.
Win or lose on Tuesday night, the Raptors would still have the same list of accomplishments behind them this season. They claimed that first-ever top seed in the East, they set franchise records in total wins (59), home wins (34) and road wins (25.) It’s a pretty comprehensive list of firsts. The Raptors were also 40-12 against the Eastern Conference and 23-3 at home against those teams. Coach Dwane Casey has been fond of saying in recent days that this was a pretty good 82-game sample of what his team was capable of doing. Before Game 1, this had the dual purpose of defending the Raptors against their doubters while also inoculating them somewhat against the possibility of yet another series-opening loss. If you tell everyone that the whole of the regular season established your bona fides as legitimate contenders, then one game wouldn’t, in theory, change all that.
Casey was similarly low-key before Game 2 about the lessons learned on Saturday night. “Just because you win one game, that doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “We’re going into (Game 2) like we haven’t done anything.”
Good strategy, that. But he knew, and knows now, that this all feels different. They had lost 10 first playoff games in a row and had never won two straight to open a series. They have, naturally, never started 3-0, either.
Washington’s home court awaits.