There’s a small pillow in my bedroom that sits on my rocking chair. It’s black, has the Toronto Raptors original logo on it, and 1995 is credited as the copyright date.
I got it when I was in kindergarten because, for some reason, we were told to bring in a pillow so we could go take a nap in the gym. I’m pretty sure it was a one-time thing.
Instead of lugging around the pillow that I slept with, my mom bought me a smaller one. By my measurements, it’s about 17 inches by 16 inches, which means it’s a square and I didn’t measure it properly.
Tucked inside a drawer are my old sport jerseys I no longer have a reason to wear. Among them are two Vince Carter jerseys from his time with the Raptors. One is white with purple trim and the other is red, with red all over. It’s red, okay. I can’t make that more clear.
On my shelf is a Morris Peterson bobblehead, which I got at a Raptors game a few years ago. It was a pain to take out of the box. The small bits of styrofoam kept sticking to my hands and it took me a while to rid myself of them. My sister still laughs about it.
In my closet is a DeMar DeRozan jersey. It’s purple, with purple all over. It’s purple, okay. I can’t make that more clear.
Don’t mind me, just using repetition for rhetorical effect. Shoutout high school English class.
The point I’m trying to make here is that I’m a hoarder.
The point I’m trying to make here is that I’ve been a fan of the Toronto Raptors since the beginning. I may not remember the inaugural season in 1995; I was too busy tripping over hula hoops on the playground. True story.
But I remember the second season onward. I remember watching games on TV when they played out of the SkyDome. I remember players like Oliver Miller and Doug Christie. In the late nineties there was Chauncey Billups, who couldn’t find a team that would keep him.
I would record games with the VCR and watch them the next day. I did the same thing with hockey games, so I had to be sure to put a label on each tape. I had such initiative.
Then in 1999, there was the first game at the Air Canada Centre. The Raptors played the Vancouver Grizzlies and I recall the game being on while I was in the kitchen eating dinner. I left the TV on and after each bite I stood up to look in the family room and see how the game was going.
I don’t know why I was so addicted. No one else in my family was. Then again, I became interested in most sports on my own.
I still remember the first time I found baseball on TV. I was flipping channels, it caught my eye, and I flipped back to it. Then I taught myself the rules and learned what the numbers on the screen meant. I was probably 6-years-old.
The same thing happened with lacrosse a few years later. I saw it on TV once, made a mental note of when it was on, and always looked for it around the same time and day.
In 2001, the Raptors were finally looking like a legitimate team. I could probably name you most of the roster, even the players who never saw the floor.
We had Vince Carter. Bam.
We had Charles Oakley. Bam.
We had the Junk Yard Dog, Jerome Williams.
We had Alvin Williams, who was tougher than nails.
We had Dell Curry (Steph’s father) coming off the bench and hitting threes.
We had Antonio Davis, Chris Childs, and Corliss Williamson.
We had Tracy Murray, who always had a smooth shooting stroke in NBA Jam 99.
There was Keon Clark coming off the bench, who had arms longer than the front door of your house and could block shots while sitting down.
There was Yogi Stewart and Mamadou N’Diaye who never saw the floor, but I got excited when they did.
This team won 47 games, a total that wasn’t matched until 2007, and wasn’t surpassed until 2014.
The playoff ride with that team was great. There was a local pizza place (it’s no longer in business) that my family would order a party size pizza from and we’d save the extra slices in the freezer.
For the playoff games, I’d take a slice out of the freezer, heat it up in the microwave, and eat it during the first quarter.
That’s when I really honed my pizza-heating-up expertise. The trick is to heat up one slice at a time, or else they’re all fighting for the same heat, but there isn’t enough to go around, so all slices suffer, and none of them are warm.
Games were on CTV back then and hosted in studio by Suneel Joshi. He was the best.
The Raptors season ended in the second round when Vince Carter missed a shot at the buzzer of Game 7 in Philadelphia. That morning, he attended his university graduation ceremony in North Carolina.
Why was Vince allowed to go to that on the day of the biggest game of his life? Who let him go? It doesn’t matter anymore. I don’t even think it mattered back then. (I’m alone in that opinion). If he made the shot at the buzzer to win the game, no one would even remember he went to his graduation that day.
From there, the Raptors fell apart. Vince Carter was traded away for two guys named Williams, a guy who never even entered the country (Alonzo Mourning) because he wanted nothing to do with us, and a draft pick that turned into Joey Graham.
Hopeless. Wearing my Vince Carter jerseys to school would be no more. He was public enemy number one. The discourse surrounding his trade was that he quit on the team.
Years later, we found out the other sides of the story.
Regardless, the Raptors were in for some bad years until Chris Bosh emerged as the next star of the team and took us to the playoffs in 2007 and 2008. We never got out of the first round.
He took his talents to South Beach and the Raptors were back to being a draft lottery team.
In the 2013-14 season, they tried to tank. They traded Rudy Gay away to Sacramento and were ready to ship Kyle Lowry off to the New York Knicks, but Knicks owner, James Dolan, stepped in and thought he was being swindled once again by Raptors General Manager, Masai Ujiri.
Ujiri had previously unloaded Bargnani on him, and had fleeced them in the Carmelo Anthony deal when he was with Denver. James Dolan went all, “Fool me thrice, shame on you” and rejected the deal.
THANK YOU, JAMES DOLAN.
The Raptors made a run and finished the season with 48 wins. They were elminated from the playoffs by the Brooklyn Nets in the first round.
But it’s fine. We’ll get ’em next year! I still remember Kyle Lowry face down on the floor at the end of that game after his shot had been blocked at the buzzer.
In 2015, the Raptors won 49 games. Alright, this is it! It’s happening! We’re doing it! We’re doing it!
Bam. Swept in the first round by the Washington Wizards.
The off-season came and we were told by management that the makeup of the team was flawed. We had the wrong players.
Alright. No worries. We’re still a good team. We have Kyle and DeMar. Let’s build it better. Faster. Stronger.
In 2016, the Raptors won 56 games. Now we’re talking! Before we were whispering. Now, we’re talking!
They defeated the Indiana Pacers in the first round in seven games.
They defeated the Miami Heat in the second round in seven games.
And now was the test of tests. No more cheating off your neighbour’s paper, or doing a class consensus when the teacher leaves the room. The real test was here.
The first two games of the series were ugly. How ugly? Like a lasagna without the layers of pasta.
But you know what, the next two games would be at home. We’re good at home! And wouldn’t you know it, the Raptors won the next two games at home.
“Back to Cleveland, MacDuff!” – Shakespeare
We lost Game 5. We came home and lost Game 6.
LeBron James stood on our floor and was in awe of our crowd as the Raptors left the floor. He gave us the validation and recognition that we’ve been seeking since day one.
We had gone from that upstart basketball team in Canada, which was named after a dinosaur movie, and played out of a baseball stadium, to the team that made the best player in the game look around and say, “You know what, you’re alright.”
Finally, we had made it.
Until last year. The Raptors won 51 games. Not quite 56, but still, 51 wins isn’t anything to blow your nose in a handkerchief about.
However, we’d get Cleveland in the second round. They swept us in four games. It wasn’t close. I don’t want to talk about it.
That finally brings us to this year. The Raptors won 59 games this season and finished first in the Eastern Conference.
We have the best bench in the NBA, with players that fans outside of this country didn’t know about until halfway through the season.
Before, the Raptors played a style that relied on Kyle and DeMar way too much. Their substitution strategy was built around always have at least one of them in the game at all times. Without either of them on the floor, the team had no direction.
In the playoffs, it was easy to shut them down. Send two guys at DeMar and force him to pass to someone not as good. Same thing with Kyle. Then people wonder why those two struggle in the playoffs.
They’ve never had much of a supporting cast. The players they were passing to could never make an open shot, which only forced Kyle and DeMar to hold onto the ball and try and make something happen on their own.
It didn’t work.
This season was different. Head Coach Dwane Casey had a bench (most of them) that had already spent a season together in the D-League (now named the G-League) last year, where they won the championship.
Delon Wright. Fred VanVleet. Pascal Siakam. Jakub Poeltl. Norman Powell. C.J. Miles.
You see those names on paper at the start of the season and wonder how this bench will score more than 10 points in a game. I know I wondered that. I was skeptical.
They proved me wrong. The ball was zipping around. They were sharing it. Easy buckets here. A C.J. Miles three there. A one man fast break from Siakam. A big block from Poeltl. A dunk from Powell. Hey bada boom, bada bing.
This bench outplayed a lot of starting units this year. To end games, Casey wouldn’t automatically default back to his starters like he had done in previous years. Sometimes, it would be Kyle, DeMar, VanVleet, Siakam, and Poeltl closing a game.
I don’t think anyone could’ve seen that coming at the start of the season.
So now they enter the playoffs as the first seed in the East and face off against the Washington Wizards – the team that swept them three years ago.
Am I nervous? A little bit. I think the entire fanbase is.
That’s why I asked the question in the title of this post: Are we there yet?
Are we there yet?
Where is “there”?
“There” is the top of the NBA. Are we the cream of the crop? Are we an elite team? Are we finally in a place where we can defeat LeBron James in a 7-game series? Are we there yet?
We’ll find out.
The Wizards present an interesting challenge in the first round. I’m scared of John Wall running circles around us, but he hasn’t been completely healthy all year and their team doesn’t have the depth the Raptors have.
But there’s still that little ounce of doubt. I hate that it’s there, but it is. We don’t win the first game of playoff series. We just don’t. Take my word for it.
If we lose Game 1 to Washington on Saturday, there will be some people who will be saying, “Same old Raptors.” The American media can’t wait to say that. They’re practicing their delivery of that sentence right now.
To hear that hurts us. Because it’s a sign that we aren’t there yet. If we can’t be taken seriously, and are perpetually seen as chokers, we aren’t there.
Getting by the Wizards in the first round means we get LeBron in the second round.
Sorry, Indiana. I just eliminated you from the playoffs.
That’ll be the true test. Beating LeBron four times is a daunting task. It’s the reason why no Eastern Conference team has been able to do it since 2010.
People want to talk about how the Raptors always choke in the playoffs. Well, they haven’t the last two years. They lost to LeBron. That isn’t choking. That’s just the way it is.
Did they choke when they got swept by the Wizards? Yes.
And when they lost to Brooklyn the year before that? Sure.
But those teams weren’t meant to win anything, especially the team that lost to Brooklyn.
By now, the roster is completely different. This isn’t your teenager’s Raptors, or however that saying goes. The players that have remained are older and have experience they didn’t have back when they “choked”.
I’ve been following the Raptors for a long time. The relics in my bedroom, and the memories in my head, are proof.
These playoffs are important.
The Raptors either announce to the basketball world that yes, we are there. That we are one of the best teams in the league and we just proved it in the playoffs.
Or, the Raptors do what they’ve always done. They lose. And they play into the narrative that’s been there far too long – the one that says we aren’t capable of performing when it matters the most.
Come Saturday, the playoffs begin.
“Toronto over Everything” is nice. “We The North” is nice. “The 6ix” secretly annoys me to no end, but I’ll stick to the script and call it nice. Drake sitting court side and trash-talking the opponent is nice.
But nice has gotten us nowhere.
Nice has not brought us there.
And to get there, we have to act like we belong there.
So, let’s belong. Let’s go Raptors.