What’s happened to the Raptors in the playoffs over the past four years is something you would wish only on a team that you truly hate, and there’s nothing to hate about Toronto. Though there’s a distinctly American, how cute! condescension to the way broadcasters and journalists characterize those folks packed into Jurassic Park—the outdoor viewing area near the Air Canada Centre—there is also ample admiration for those lunatic college-aged broke-asses, sometimes braving the rain or the cold, chanting and groaning and cheering on their Raptors. It’s not the kind of thing you see from Lakers fans. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, in the age of famous people being friends more on Instagram than in fact, seem to have a genuine bond. Masai Ujiri cussed out Brooklyn. Dwane Casey, having nearly been fired every other season of his Toronto tenure, has acquired a weathered police chief vibe. Drake is Jack Nicholson with the goofball slider set to 99. (And, just in time for the playoffs, “Nice For What” is a mesmeric jam.) The Raptors are easy to root for.
And so it brings me no pleasure to remark that—oof, the Raptors have a postseason problem. I’m not the first person to notice this, but laid out in its totality, their record is damning. In 2014—the Eff Brooklyn year; the year Kyle Lowry broke out at age 27—Toronto nabbed the three seed in the East, coughed up the first game of their opening round series at home, then narrowly lost to the Nets in seven games, their season concluding with Lowry stubbornly stumbling through Kevin Garnett and Deron Williams only to be blocked near the rim by Paul Pierce. DeRozan and Lowry combined to go 12-for-31 in that game. The Raptors’ best player was Amir “Garbage Buckets” Johnson. But these kinds of things tend to happen to teams with very little playoff experience. All things considered, the Brooklyn defeat was something to build upon.
2015: 49 wins, four seed. Jonas Valnanciunas’s play goes up a level. Lou Williams is scoring 15.5 points per night off the bench. Here we go; we’ve got the hang of this now—and the Raptors immediately get swept by the Wizards. This is a disaster compared to the Nets series. A relatively green team falling to Garnett, Pierce, Deron Williams, and Joe Johnson by a fine margin is one thing. Getting waxed the following season by Bradley Beal, John Wall, and uh, Pierce belongs to a different category of disappointment. John Wall averaged 12.5 assists per game; (an admittedly banged up and exhausted-looking) Lowry shot 31.6 percent from the field. Pierce, 37 years old and lumpenly physiqued, matched Williams’s regular season scoring mark while Sweet Lou himself went 4-for-21 from three-point range. The series was never particularly close: three solid wins for the Wiz and a blowout in Game 4.
The next postseason run was inarguably an improvement over the first two, but the Raptors had to work way harder than they should have to get to the Eastern Conference Finals and eventually got annihilated by the Cavs in one of the more lopsided six-game series you’re ever going to see. Toronto squeaked past the Paul George And Absolutely Nobody Else Pacers in seven games despite Lowry and DeRozan shooting wretchedly in every single contest. (85-for-236 from the field combined.) Next they played seven more (exceedingly ugly) games against the Dwyane Wade And, Okay, Goran Dragic I Guess Heat. The season-ender against Cleveland was strange not because the Toronto put up a surprisingly plucky fight but because the Cavs stopped playing after Game 2, let Raptors get to 2-2, then went back to making them look like rec leaguers in a pair of lopsided wins. Over six games, the Cavs outscored them by 93 points. On the bright side, the Raptors gutted out a couple tough series during which their stars played poorly, but it’s difficult to get beaten that badly by a team you’re supposed to be competitive with and feel great about what you’ve accomplished.
Finally, last year, the Raps once again struggled in their opening round matchup, this time with the inferior Milwaukee Bucks. They dropped Game 1 (Lowry and DeRozan 9-for-32), barely won Game 2 (Lowry and DeRozan 15-for-30!), and got destroyed in Game 3 (DeRozan literally did not make a shot) before taking control of the series and finishing it up in six. Little can be said about their second-round sweep at LeBron’s hands that hasn’t already been expressed above. It was a bloodbath.
There’s no more hackneyed, aggravating narrative in sports than such-and-such team or player not being able to come through in the clutch, not because it’s not a real phenomenon but because it describes some shameful deficiency within its subject that obliterates everything else they do so well. Kyle Lowry is an awesome point guard whose late-twenties renaissance makes him a lot more relatable than, say, Chris Paul, and—this is the kind of expert analysis you come here for—it really sucks that he can’t get out of his own way and play his best ball in the playoffs. DeMar DeRozan is a deeply satisfying player to watch because he’s always adding elements to his game and has now amassed a deluxe toolbox of spins and feints and fading jumpers that make him unguardable on the right night… but it just doesn’t happen for the guy in big games. There’s more to the story of why the Raptors have been underwhelming in the postseason during the most sustained period of success in franchise history, but it starts with Lowry and DeRozan, who have been at the center of it all.
These particular Raptors are probably the best team of the Lowry and DeRozan era. They’re the number one seed in the East. They can go ten or eleven deep. Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby give them some lanky, switchy athleticism they’ve lacked in years past. Jakob Poeltl doesn’t make mistakes, which is astounding considering he’s only 22. Serge Ibaka has settled comfortably into his homeless man’s Chris Bosh role. Fred VanVleet will definitely have a moment or two this postseason—triumphant, blood-curdling, or otherwise.
And yet, the Raptors have convinced no one south of Ontario that this is the year they’re making a Finals run because that’s not something they can do with even an immensely impressive regular season. To shed the paper tiger stigma, they must—y’know, actually perform. There’s no better time for them to do it. The Celtics have no healthy stars. The Cavs are as vulnerable as they’ve been since LeBron’s return. The Sixers are young. Ostensibly, the Raptors are a decent bet to win the Eastern Conference. That is, if you just started following the NBA this season. Those of us familiar with recent history are a whit skeptical. But it would be wonderful to be proven wrong.