Before the Raptors-76ers NBA playoff series began on Saturday with a blowout, Shaquille O’Neal said Toronto would get judo flipped.
“Toronto getting swept,” O’Neal said. “Write it down.”
His TNT panel mates looked at him with something approaching pity. Even Charles Barkley, a man who loves a provocation based on shaky science, seemed chagrined on Shaq’s behalf.
A little later in the broadcast, O’Neal took it back. “Rescind it,” he said, which sounds oddly official. As though he expected YouTube to scrub the video or something.
Experts can afford to be wrong. They just can’t afford to be wrong when everyone else is right. Someone apparently let O’Neal in on the difference. This was an example of the Raptors’ league-wide standing doing some legwork on their behalf.
Middling sports franchises (which is what the Raptors are) can have one of three reputations. They can be a tough out, a walkover, or someone whose reputation is having no reputation (the worst spot to find yourself in).
Coasting on the fact that they didn’t become terrible the instant Kawhi Leonard dumped them, the Raptors are a tough out. Ask anyone. When ESPN polled its approximately 400 basketball writers to pick the Toronto-Philadelphia series, not a one of them thought it would go less than six games (and a quarter thought the Raptors would win).
This is a team of relative unknowns going up against a top MVP candidate (Joel Embiid), as well as one of the great scorers in the game’s history (James Harden).
That’s one hell of a reputation Toronto’s got working for it. It’s based on a few other things as well – recent history, the likeability of the team, a tendency to pop off the mat just as people are about to start thinking about counting it out.
What it’s not based on is facts.
The last time the Raptors won in the playoffs, it was against a Nets troupe staffed by understudies. Then the Boston Celtics beat them up for seven games and they spent a year convalescing. Now here they are – still a tough out, though it’s been a couple of years since they had a chance to prove it.
Game 1 put that idea in peril. The Raptors didn’t just lose on the scoreboard, 131-111. They lost based on every stat and every sort of eye test. They probably lost the battle for clean towels dispensed and number of shoes properly tied.
Problematically, this wasn’t a function of the Sixers’ best players running wild. Hemming in Philadelphia’s Mr. Big, Embiid, allowed their Mr. Nobody, Tyrese Maxey, to discover his inner hall of famer.
If your opponent’s fourth- or fifth-best player is hanging 38 points on you in the post-season, it may be time to reconsider your strategy. Or your roster.
“I wouldn’t say we lost ourselves,” Raptors’ class president Fred VanVleet said afterward. “But I think we just weren’t ourselves in a lot of areas.”
Obviously, the main goal here is still winning the series. One loss doesn’t tell the tale, especially in the NBA. Also, Philadelphia does not exactly have a reputation for ruthlessness.
But all of a sudden, a new and important secondary goal for Toronto is protecting its reputation. The “weren’t ourselves” excuse works once. Try it a second time, and what you look is delusional.
Being widely known for competence greater than your aggregate talent – whether it’s deserved or not – has all sorts of benefits. With pride at stake, your own players work a little harder. Opponents get back on their heels when they see you coming. It’s easier to recruit and retain talent. The fan base won’t climb on your back and start jumping.
Last week, a rumour was floated that the Los Angeles Lakers want to poach coach Nick Nurse. Everyone in Toronto laughed it off. That’s because Toronto is a tough out, a team on the rise, an organization with a bright future. Not that any of that has been proved true. There’s just a sense that it will.
Take that sense away and no one’s laughing.
Had they won the first game, the Raptors would be pretty close to in the clear. Few people realistically expect them to win this series, though many will claim they knew all along if it happens.
One win puts you in clover. You showed up. It’s not your fault you were outmanned. It was someone else’s turn.
But a loss like that can’t be repeated. It’s not that you look incompetent (though that, too). It’s that you look like you were pretending to be competent. People hate a faker.
Among the many things that went wrong in Game 1 was the introduction of an excuse. Midway through the fourth quarter, hugging enthusiast Scottie Barnes turned his ankle. Based on the way the Toronto rookie was half-carried, half-dragged off the court, his return is not imminent. In fact, his return looks downright remote.
If the Raptors really feel like getting a jump on golf season, Barnes is their excuse. Not that he’s anywhere close to their best or most important player. But all you have to do is talk about ‘interrupted rhythm’ and being ‘unable to find our flow’. Toronto used to love that one back in the bad old DeMar DeRozan days.
That is the team you don’t want to become again – a pretty good regular-season squad that you know in your bones has lost every big playoff series before it has even got on the plane. A walkover team.
It’s difficult verging on impossible to come back from that reputation without detonating the roster and starting over. Toronto proved it.
No self-respecting pro can allow him- or herself to contemplate the manner in which he/she plans to lose. You can’t ask guys to go out on Monday night thinking, ‘As long as we’re within 10.’
Still, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything. Saturday night was the wrong way to lose. Doing it again on Monday would be much wronger. And if – big ‘if’ – they end up proving Shaq right, that is a world of hurt this team does not want to begin contemplating.