By CATHAL KELLY
Monday, January 15, 2018
TORONTO -- While the Toronto Raptors are different this year, their public persona is not. They are the NBA's Eeyore.
To hear them tell it, no one rates them, the league and its officials are against them and that's just fine by them. Fine.
No, no, really. It's totally fine.
"Well, we don't know what we're doing," coach Dwane Casey said archly on Saturday.
"We're kind of just this old country school up north."
If this is a motivational exercise, it's never worked. In order to feel affronted when someone insults or ignores you, they have to be in the wrong. In the Raptors case, they haven't been.
Since the 2013-14 season, the Raptors have amounted to a moderately sized speed bump for elite teams - large enough to register a jolt, but not so big that you'd need to slow down before you hit them.
That's changing, and so perhaps the team's marketing line ought to as well. The Raptors aren't small obstacles any more.
They're dangerous. This past weekend proved it.
On Thursday, missing two of their top three starters, Toronto annihilated the full-strength Cleveland Cavaliers.
A half-hour in, the only Cleveland player who had not given up was LeBron James. He went wild during a timeout, repeatedly cutting off his coach to scream at his colleagues.
James embraced the darkness in the third. He sat out the fourth.
As it ended 133-99, you said to yourself, "Cleveland will remember this one."
With that in mind, Casey worked so hard to maintain a blank expression during his postgame remarks, it appeared he'd been pre-emptively Botox'd for the purpose. No bulletin-board material. Not even a gif of a smile. Just another day at the office, pantsing the three-time finalists, ho hum.
The new key for the Raptors is ball movement. They don't put a cowboy hat on DeMar DeRozan in the third quarter any more and encourage him to ride in alone. Kyle Lowry will occasionally let someone or something beside the ground touch the ball. There are no more heroes on this squad. It's a team of equals (some more equal than others).
It's working so well that the man who perfected this system of play has noticed.
"They've adapted, play a much faster, wide-open game, the ball is moving much more, they're much tougher to guard," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said before Saturday's game in Toronto.
Kerr noted that this wholesale transformation has been undertaken without a significant change in personnel. Same coach, same stars, completely different on-court philosophy.
He called that "very unique." If it sounded like the pat on the back before the punch in the face, it was still nice of him to do it. And thinking that it was nice of Steve Kerr to notice the Toronto Raptors is another symptom of Toronto Raptors Disease.
Over at the other end of the hallway, Casey was delivering his usual lines. Asked about "measuring-stick" games, he audibly sighed.
"We're a good team and they're a good team and Cleveland is a good team," Casey said. "We won't say, 'If we don't win it, our season's down the tubes.' " Of course, that wasn't the question, but it's where Casey wants to take it. He is a man allergic to turning points. Either nothing matters all that much or everything does (which is the same thing). He even clings to this line of "Nothing to see here" patter in the midst of playoff series.
That subsequent game may have been the most Jekyll/Hyde Raptors performance of the Casey era. And there have been a few of those.
In the first half, the Warriors played the role of the Harlem Globetrotters. The Raptors were the orange cones. Golden State scored 81 points (!) on 71-percent (!!) shooting and led by 27 at the break. Casey called it "a layup line." Centre Jakob Poeltl called the defence "non-existent."
The Raptors were still missing Lowry through injury. DeRozan played 32 minutes in just three quarters and was seated for most of the fourth. That's when the bulk of the comeback happened.
Suddenly, Toronto was Golden State - the ball refused to stick in one place. Through repeated passing, bad shooting opportunities became good ones became unmissable. This was all being achieved by the second tier of talent - Fred VanVleet, Poeltl, C.J. Miles.
The Raptor bench stood in there with the best team in the league - maybe the best team in history - and traded blows like peers. From the neutral perspective, it was magnificent viewing.
But it's January, it's Golden State and there is a code about such things, so the referees were always going to decide it.
A few bad calls near the end tipped the balance. The Warriors won 127-125. Everybody should have gone home happy.
The Raptors were not happy.
Casey called the officiating "mind-boggling." DeRozan described the game as "five on eight." VanVleet began his scrum with, "Let me start off by saying I don't make enough to comment on no officiating calls."
This was in keeping with the way the Raptors have carried themselves since their initial breakthrough.
They like to claim they do not sweat the small stuff. Media comments, statement games, U.S. national TV dates, referee bias - none of it bothers them.
And when given the chance to prove it, they very obviously sweat the small stuff. Everything grinds their gears, even when they're winning, even when it isn't worth getting worked up about.
It's about time for the Raptors to recalibrate their PR reflexes in the same way they have their game tactics. They ought to breathe a little more, understand that being grim is not the same thing as being serious.
This team no longer flatters to deceive. They are a serious contender - if not yet in the league as a whole, then certainly in the Eastern Conference. No one who matters thinks any different. Everyone knows they've changed.
This whole underdog thing has become a shtick. The Raptors are overdogs now.
It's okay to admit that.
Because in saying it out loud to everyone else, you're also saying it to yourself. And maybe that would be fun.
Warriors guard Stephen Curry and Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan go head to head in Toronto on Saturday.
COLE BURSTON/THE CANADIAN PRESS