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Before the anxiety takes hold, know this: These are the good times. There was one last regular-season attempt Wednesday night in Miami to win 60 games. 60! The Toronto Raptors lost 60 games the year after Chris Bosh left, back when Andrea Bargnani was their leading scorer, and DeMar DeRozan was 21 years old. The next year they hired Dwane Casey; the next year they traded for Kyle Lowry; the next year they hired Masai Ujiri. Here they are, five years later, and these are the good times.
Soon, it could be easy to forget that. The Raptors will enter the playoffs as the top seed in the East, after a hell of a year. Back in the summer smart people said Fred VanVleet had been the best player in summer scrimmages, and now you can see why. The culture change after the existential questions regarding this team’s core of DeRozan and Lowry and Casey, the fusing together of old and new, the consistent effort and competitiveness, they’ve been great. It’s the best basketball team Toronto has seen.
And coming into the playoffs Chris Webber is saying on TNT that the Washington Wizards want Toronto in the first round, and the Philadelphia 76ers are the darlings of the league even with planet-smasher Joel Embiid trying on masks for his broken face, and in Cleveland, LeBron still looms, bigger than anybody in the game.
The Raptors? Nice year, fellas. Good for you.
And maybe the Raptors will prove that they are being underestimated, and maybe they will flop in a second-round showdown. They shouldn’t have to worry about the first round, this time. They should be good enough for that, at least.
But until they finally win a Game 1, until they finally play a playoff series that doesn’t feel like a crisis — you can compose the list in your head, year by year — the doubts won’t go away. And if they fall short, well … no matter how it happens, somebody will say, condescending or angry or dispirited, same old Raptors.
And you should still remember, these are the good times. This franchise was so bedraggled for so long, so silly, so irrelevant. The Raptors once had an assistant coach yelling “JERMAINE” down the bench to call for Jerome Williams, as Williams stared into space; it once featured Vince Carter watching games happen, because the organization had told him it would consider Dr. J, who has never worked in an NBA front office since, as general manager.
From the night in Detroit in 2002 when Chris Childs forgot the score at the end of Game 5 to the first appearance of this core in a playoff series in 2014, the Raptors won three playoff games. And of course, in the next two years after that, they only won three more.
Now they have a team that at least has a fighting chance to be the best team in the East, to topple the permanence of LeBron or the future of Philadelphia. They will not be favourites, home-court advantage and all. But they will have a chance.
Even that is improbable, even incredible. The NBA is a galaxy that revolves around its stars, and the Raptors don’t have a top-10 player. No disrespect to Lowry or DeRozan, but they might not have a top-20 player. Neither has ever had a dominant playoff season. This year, with this team’s depth, they may not have to.
But we should appreciate what their best players have become. DeRozan has built himself so methodically, piece by piece, expanding out from a Compton kid with on-court tunnel vision to the multifaceted offensive weapon who can see the play develop now, can see his teammates waiting for a pass. Lowry was a stubborn castoff who lost starting jobs in city after city, and he became one of the league’s best point guards, a sharpshooting bundle of winning plays, of effort plays.
Casey, for that matter, had only a season and a half as an NBA coach under his belt before Toronto. He won 23 and 34 games his first two years with the Raptors, clashed with Lowry, and could have been fired. He has an excellent case, along with his staff, to win coach of the year.
And Ujiri has methodically built an organization that has drafted well: Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby in the last three draft years, taken with the No. 20, No. 9, No. 27, No. 23 picks, respectively. And amid those gems, the undrafted but discovered VanVleet, who will be re-signed by the Raptors if they have any choice over it, became their most important bench player.
Ujiri redirected Lowry’s self-destructive instincts, pushed DeRozan, kept Jonas Valanciunas, kept Casey. The Raptors had the second-best record in the NBA this year, the second-best net rating. They were assembled from castoffs and prospects, big swings and cool decisions.
And they may well lose in the second round. Nothing is guaranteed. The same playoff questions may arise about their stars, and the conversation could turn to how they move salaries like Norm Powell or Serge Ibaka or whoever else. This team has too many good players to keep together long term. There are decisions ahead, and maybe opportunities.
So remember …these are the good times. A delightful team, a professional team, with an offence and a defence and unmatched depth. The worrying can start now, but don’t forget this: You worry when something is at stake, and this team earned your anxiety. And there have been so many times when the Raptors weren’t really worth worrying over at all.