Before the Toronto Raptors
closed out their best regular season in franchise history this week with a meaningless loss to the New York Knicks, their ownership conglomerate leaked the team's "We the North" branding video
Narrated by Drake, it's the sort of slick, effective marketing tool befitting the noted Sid Lee agency that produced it, cathartically embracing Toronto's real and imagined underdog status in the NBA, with perhaps a not-so-subtle tip of the cap to the city's newfound global street cred.
Word is the video wasn't supposed to be released until next year, when it would coincide with the Raptors' 20th anniversary. But something funny happened in season 19, and when the unexpected result was the franchise's second Atlantic Division title
, plans were expedited.
On Thursday, after the team practised for the first time with the secured knowledge that their opening-round playoff opponent would be the Brooklyn Nets
, the faces of the Raptors were clearly on board with that underdog spirit.
"We've had a chip on our shoulder all year ... it ain't gonna stop now," said DeMar DeRozan
-- alongside Amir Johnson
the longest-tenured Raptor at five years.
The first-time all-star seemed to bristle the most all year at any notion that Toronto should have been in tank mode in hopes of landing locally grown prodigies Andrew Wiggins
or Tyler Ennis in the draft.
Brooklyn's loss to Cleveland in its season finale -- where coach Jason Kidd sat his starters in a perceived "mini-tank" designed to secure a preferred first-round opponent -- ensured the first-round date with the Raptors. It also sent a fairly clear message that the veteran Nets coveted a matchup with Toronto, as opposed to the rough, defensive hell of the Tom Thibodeau-coached (and still Derrick Rose-free) Chicago Bulls, whom Brooklyn fell to last spring.
The unsurprising result was the ensuing narrative of the Raptors' inexperience vs. the Nets' vets.
"It ain't like its rocket science," DeRozan said Thursday, responding to the great sports media cliché query of youth vs. experience. "It's no trigonometry. I've been playing this game long enough and been in enough situations ... we're all in the same league."A different game?
On one hand, DeRozan is right. Toronto was 2-2 against Brooklyn this season, aggregately outscoring them 397-386. As it stands on paper today, the Raptors' backcourt of DeRozan and Kyle Lowry
is better than the Nets' starting duo of Deron Williams
and Joe Johnson
(Want one of a few juicy subplots? Lowry should be good and p'd off about Johnson taking his rightful place in the all-star game).
On the other hand, veterans count this time of year. If you want to go aggregate again, Brooklyn's starters dwarf the Raptors' in post-season games played, 399-24.
Sitting at a bar the other night and debating the then-possibility of a Raps-Nets series, by chance I happened to look up and see a Paul Pierce
Celtics jersey hanging from the ceiling. The 36-year-old Pierce, now playing minutes as a small-ball power forward with centre Brook Lopez
out, has been a Raptor killer his entire 16-year career -- including averaging almost 20 points a game against Toronto this season.
Well aware of the physical nature and somewhat muted ref's whistle of NBA playoff basketball, DeRozan moderated his tone a little.
"You've got to be ready for everything. I've watched enough playoff basketball to know how physical it is. Even superstar players don't get calls out there. I'm not naïve, I'm just in a position to be about to go through it myself."
That ref's whistle is something Raptor fans will be weary of. It wouldn't be the NBA without a conspiracy theory, and the belief is out there that the league catered to the only New York team in the playoffs by inserting up to three two-day breaks in this series so the Nets could theoretically rest those aging legs (For the record, two-day breaks, even in non-travel portions of playoff series, are common in the NBA).
Yet isn't this what being a transnational underdog is all about?Fanning the flames
Before Thursday's practice, Raps GM Masai Ujiri
addressed the Nets' desire to open the NBA playoffs in Canada.
"I know I haven't -- and I can sense from the players -- lost a second of sleep worrying about the Brooklyn Nets," said the reigning (and outside candidate to go back-to-back) NBA executive of the year. "If we want to be a good team, we have to play a good team. They can do whatever they want, we'll be right here."
Nets coach Jason Kidd fanned the flames after Wednesday's loss by telling reporters, "I like where we are. We're in a good place."
Much has changed since Kidd was Vince Carter's point guard on the last Nets team to beat the Raptors in the playoffs, in 2007. In fact, if you want to talk franchise rebranding, who better to trot out than an NBA also-ran like then-New Jersey, who left the swamp of the Meadowlands to cross the two Gotham rivers for the hipster haven of Brooklyn, black-and-white unis and a superstar rapper prominently involved with the franchise?
While Jay-Z's laughably miniscule stake in the Nets is in the past, Kidd as head coach is the present. Yes, it's still easy to malign the hall of fame player as a rookie bench boss, but Brooklyn has played their best ball of the season since Lopez went out with a foot injury.
Going small, the Nets tend to shoot a lot from outside with Johnson, Williams and Pierce. Toronto will run its pick-and-roll offence, with the aforementioned angry Lowry often attacking. Inside, Jonas Valanciunas
dealt admirably with 37-year-old trash talker Kevin Garnett
's head games thrice this season.
All of this, however, comes against the backdrop of the Raptors losing their Dwane Casey-instilled defensive intensity down the stretch. Toronto has surrendered 100 points or more points in seven of its last 11 games, but the coach chalks some of that up to late-season blahs.
"The last couple of weeks have been tough mentally, [but] they have been for a lot of teams in the league," Casey said, presumably referencing a big chunk of the Eastern Conference's poor performance overall.
Casey then tried to spin the experience issue in Toronto's favour.
"We've got to use our youth, athleticism and speed," he said. "I don't want to overhype it, but it's a different level," he said of the playoff world his players are about to enter, most for the first time. "That's one thing they'll learn. The only way to experience it is to go through it."Prediction
So many subplots, from Valanciunas and Garnett, to Lowry, and to the career resurrection of the Nets' Shaun Livingston
It could very well be an angry series, too. It's seems easy to go with the consensus and say Nets in six. But I think things are even enough that it goes seven. If that happens, at least the Raptors have home floor.
Call it a pick 'em.
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