Jordan: Even now, it still seems like a really nice dream. Now to be fair, in comparison to 2020, everything from 2019 seems like a nice dream. It’s still amazing though, to remember that this actually happened.
News Clip: There’s a new NBA champion and it’s a team from Toronto, Canada. We the North, are now We the Champions, the Raptors are now the 2019 NBA champs.
Jordan: I’ve probably played you that clip like six times on this show over the past year, but you know what? I don’t care. And I’m betting you don’t mind much either. And so when the Raptors came roaring back out last fall to defend their title, blowing away expectations of them, it seemed like Canada might get a second straight spring of basketball to remember. But look, we’re not going to talk about anything that happened this spring today. Let’s talk instead about what happened when the Raptors did finally return. The reigning champs rode into the NBA bubble and made short work out of the warmup games that are intended to sort out who will play who in the playoffs. The Raptors are back. They are still the champs and the playoffs start Monday. This is what they’ve been waiting for, what their fans have been waiting for. And it’s special. No, not just having basketball back, not even just having the Raptors back, but having these Raptors, these players, this coach and this management team back. What’s so special about them? Well, get ready. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Michael Grange is a senior writer at sportsnet.ca. He covers the Raptors there and on television and on radio, and also now on podcasts. I’m Michael.
Michael: Jordan, how are you?
Jordan: I’m doing really well. The NBA playoffs are about to start. And what’s it like for you having basketball back all of a sudden after months off. You had to shave for TV.
Michael: I didn’t have to. I chose to. But you know, Elliotte Friedman is one beard enough. One beard for network. But, no, it’s been interesting. I mean, in some ways it’s been a relief the saying in sports reporting is, the more stuff going on, the easier it gets or the better it gets. And you know, that long stretch when no one knew what was going on, it sort of felt like covering a lockout or one of these things where the story is really big, but you don’t know when it’s coming or how it’s coming. And now that you have a schedule in front of you, people in sports, we like our schedules. We like to know what’s happening, when it’s happening, what to focus on, when to look ahead, and so it’s comforting to have a schedule again. I’d use that word.
Jordan: We did a brief overview about the return of all sports last month with your colleague Donnovan Bennett, but specifically today, because the Raptors are now Canada’s team, for people who haven’t been following the return of the NBA, can you just explain what their return to play is like, where they are, what they’re doing, et cetera?
Michael: The NBA is kind of almost synonymous with COVID because, if people recall back in March, you know, a player named Rudy Gobert, who plays for the Utah Jazz, he tested positive and the league almost instantly put itself on hiatus. And it was kind of like arguably the first major institution in North America that took a really significant step, and it kind of set in motion, or was consistent with a lot of other steps that we all know have been taken since. And so, watching how the NBA would navigate, or did navigate the hiatus, so to speak, and then make plans to return to play, was also very fascinating, because, you know, all eyes were on them and they’re kind of deemed or viewed as a kind of a progressive, forward thinking organization. And they settled on this idea of a bubble, a quarantine bubble that was on campus on part of Walt Disney World Resort, not the whole thing, but about a third of it, that’s the Wide World of Sports portion, and I think it’s branded by ESPN as well. And so, you know, they had three basketball-ready facilities on campus, a number of hotels available for players and supporting staff to be in, and basically they’ve been there now for– I kind of lost track of time, but teams began arriving in Orlando about a week before games started, which was July 30th. Rapper’s first game was August 1st. And they’ve been ensconced ever since. It was very interesting to see, and all eyes were on them, could they pull it off? And so, they’ve got 22 teams in place, a total of about 1600 people, players included, in this bubble and they’ve been flawless. There hasn’t, there’ve been no positive tests. The players are tested every day. There’s all kinds of protocols in place for distancing and masking. And it’s kinda like this idealized world actually that, you know, we can almost wish we were in. And all of this so they can play basketball. And so what’s happened now is they reduced what was remaining of the schedule to each team would have eight games and the regular seeding season, versus I think the Raptors had 18 or 19 left. And those games were used to solidify the standings for the playoffs. And as of Monday, the playoffs will begin and it’ll look very familiar to, you know, a casual sports fan. You know, there are two conferences, one through eight. First place team plays eight in each conference and they play off until the winner of the Eastern conference plays a winner of the Western conference and the winner of that seven game series is the NBA champion. So that’s where we’re at. It’s been in some ways incredibly unique, bizarre . I wouldn’t say revolutionary, but you know, it’s kind of a brave new world in a way. And in other ways, we’re just about to get to a very, very familiar looking basketball tournament.
Jordan: Well, before we get to the playoffs starting, can you briefly, cause it’s been a long time, just give us kind of a TV recap? Like, the last time you saw the Toronto Raptors, you know, it was March. Everything was about to shut down. What was this team doing?
Michael: This team was in the midst of just, you know, a beautiful season. The kind of season that I think sports fans who were invested in a local team dream of. And as epic as last season was, and all of Canada, we know, got swept up in the Raptors championship run, and for many reasons, you know, it’ll go down as one of the great Canadian sports moments and memories. I think a lot of people who are really invested in this team would tell you, this season has been even better and it’s been statistically better. So they’ve lost Kawhi Leonard, who a lot of people might remember, Danny Green, who were kind of the newcomers who were essential pieces in, you know, the Raptors winning title, both left in free agency. And so the projections were this team, the Raptors team that was left would be good, competitive, but you know, it would be the beginning of a decline, and we’d be kind of looking at a new chapter for the team. And instead, you’ve got this team that’s completely egalitarian led by, you know, these super passionate, super smart, super competitive veterans surrounded by, you know, a lot of really willing and talented young players. And, you know, they’re the truest team that you could conceive of, and they’re trying literally to make NBA history as they try to repeat their title. And, you know, they’re just on the cusp of getting in that process.
Jordan: So since they’ve come back and played a few games, how have they looked in the seeding games?
Michael: They’ve established themselves as of the contending teams. And I guess in context, before the season started, we established the Raptors were kind of thought to be a good team, a playoff team, but the real contenders for the title were the Los Angeles Clippers who got Kawhi Leonard, the Los Angeles Lakers who had LeBron James, and in the East, the Milwaukee bucks who have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s going to be the, you know, win the second straight MVP award and is on the cusp of becoming the next great, if he’s not already, great player in basketball. And after that, it was kind of, you know, the Boston Celtics are good, and maybe after five or six or seven teams, you think about the Raptors. And what’s happened in these six games, in this bubble environment, is the Raptors have established themselves, as the highest functioning contending team. The team that’s playing the closest to it’s past basketball. And it’s it’s opened a lot of eyes, and their bandwagon is slowly filling.
Jordan: As you watch those games, how have the games in general been? Not just the Raptors, what kind of basketball is it like? It’s in August, is it sloppy? And what’s it like watching it in this weird us empty arena with huge digital boards everywhere?
Michael: Well, there’s a couple of things. One, the basketball has been excellent. There was all sorts of hemming and hawing and concerns about the fitness of the players after long layoffs and everything. And I personally never really bought into that. And you know, the players almost without exception came in in excellent condition and they were able to get a lot of preparation time, even more than almost they do in a normal environment. And the basketball right from the get-go has been excellent. It’s been very competitive, a lot of compelling storylines, some really exciting finishes. You’ve had teams that are kind of trying desperately to kind of qualify for the playoffs just do some amazing stuff led by tremendous individual performances. So it’s been really compelling. As a TV product I would argue in some ways it’s been better. I mean, you know, cause the court is really well lit. You know, typically when you watch an NBA game, the court is really crowded, the fans are almost right on the sidelines, there’s photographers and media right on the end lines and the benches are super tight, there’s not enough room for all the staff, you know, because those seats near the court are really expensive, the NBA likes to sell them. And so everything else gets completely compressed. Whereas now that’s obviously not an issue. There’s no fans in the buildings. And so the court is clean, it’s crisp, there’s a lot of room. And you know, it’s basically a TV studio and so the TV production values are very high. You definitely miss the electricity of the crowd, and, you know, when the Raptors first game back, they played the Los Angeles Lakers, and it would have been a home game and Toronto, and Kyle Lowry, you know, just had a tremendous individual performance and you couldn’t help but think what it would have been like, you know, hitting some of the shots he hit to sorta pull the game out in the forest quarter, you know, at Scotiabank arena. I mean, people would have been bananas, right? So you miss that, but–
Jordan: I miss Drake.
Michael: I don’t miss Drake. But you know, so you miss the atmosphere . But I think if you’re at home watching on TV, you don’t feel ripped off either. I mean, it’s still a good thing to watch.
Jordan: So we’re talking to you now with a game or two left in the quote unquote regular season seeding games, whatever you want to call it, but the reason we’re talking to you is because we know already who the Raptors will start their play off title defence against. And can you, for people who haven’t watched anything but the Raptors, tell me about the Brooklyn Nets. Who is this team? What are they like?
Michael: Yeah. So the Raptors have locked themselves in to the number two seed in the East, and they are playing against the Brooklyn Nets, who are the seventh seed. And the Brooklyn Nets are kind of team COVID.
Michael: Yeah. They’re short I think four of their sort of top seven or eight players, a couple due to COVID, a couple of who chose not to play because of concerns about COVID, and, you know, another injury or two. So they were projected to be complete pushovers, like teams that would show up, kind of be fodder basically, and do the best they could to get out of there as soon as they could. And they’ve been sort of the opposite, and this is kind of a truism in the NBA, is there’s so many great players that when you, you know, sort of the more established ones get, you know, pushed aside, either through injury or other circumstance, you get guys who really aren’t on the radar, who just, you know, take their moment. And so the Nets as I’m looking here, they’ve won three straight. They’ve been a bit of a surprise team, I would think most would say, within the bubble environment. And all of that said, they don’t have a chance against the Raptors. I think, you know, they’re a good energetic team with some interesting individual players. But, I think they’re a team that the Raptors will handle very easily, and you know, really the test for Toronto, you know, what’s remaining in the seeding games, and in this first round of the playoffs, is make sure everyone’s healthy and the team is functioning at a high level to advance beyond that.
Jordan: So where are the Raptors likely to seed then? You know, and knock on wood, cause this is still a Toronto team we’re talking about, knock on wood that we smoothly move past the first round. Where are the Raptors likely to see their first real challenge? And what’s going to be key for them when the games get tough?
Michael: Yeah, I think the way it projects right now is the Boston Celtics, who are the third seed, presuming they win their first round series. So the way the Eastern conference is set up, teams one through six are very, very good. And the seven and eight teams aren’t. So, that’s why it was important for the Raptors to lock up that two seeds. Their first round opponent should be relatively perfunctory. The Celtics, who are in the third seed, who are very good team projected be an NBA, you know, a championship contender right from the beginning of the season, they’ve gotta– whoever they play in the first round, it’s going to be a tough series. So presuming the Celtics win that series, that will be a really epic second round series. And it’s going to be a real test of, you know, what I was referring to off the top, where you’ve got a Raptors team that’s very good, very deep, very experienced. Doesn’t have, in a way, that marquee individual player who’s known or projected for taking over games, instead they kind of do it, you know, kind of the way we’re all taught to play sports when we we’re kids, right? Share the ball, play for each other, sacrifice for each other. You know, I think a match up against a team like the Celtics will be the first test of that at a really, really high level. And you know, the other thing being that the Celtics-Raptors playoff series has never happened, ever, and not happened since each of these teams has been very good. And it is, should it have happen, it’ll be a real shame. That’ll be, you know, because of it’s– that it’s going to happen without each team’s buildings being involved, because each, you know, the Boston Garden– TD Garden in Boston, and of course, Scotiabank Arena and Toronto are two of the most electric home courts. And to have those teams, you know, buffering back and forth between those environments would be– you know, not seeing that’s a shame for sure.
Jordan: You kind of touched on it a couple of times here, but you’ve seen a ton of basketball in your career, and especially, pretty much all iterations of the Raptors through the years. What are the things that stand out about this team? What makes them unique?
Michael: Yeah. And unique is a good word. I mean, usually it’s not, right? It’s usually things aren’t really unique, but, you know, basketball is a really interesting sport. Cause there’s this constant tension, more than most other sports, between individual brilliance and team dynamics. And, you know, people are very familiar with the elite of the elite in basketball, be it LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and on down that short list of the best of the best, because, you know, unlike hockey, you know, in hockey, the best players play only 20 minutes a night. In soccer, the best players play the home game, but there’s 11 of them, right? There’s 11 people, 22 on the field at any given time. So it’s more difficult for one player to dominate the whole run of play. In basketball, the best player’s on the floor, you know, 90% of the game. And when they’re on the floor, they dominate a significant amount of play on both ends. And so traditionally, you know, no single player wins a championship alone. There is always deep quality teams. But over time, and we’re talking almost all of NBA history, but certainly let’s go to the Jordan era, which began in the mid eighties, the best teams, NBA champions, have always had one or two hall of fame players, if not three, but one or two hall of fame players that everyone identifies with that team, that everyone knows that the most tense moments of the game are going to make the deciding plays, and everyone else kind of supports that. So it’s almost like a stage play, right? Like you’ve got your stars and then you’ve got the supporting cast that makes everything goes smoothly. The Raptors don’t have a single player like that. They are trying, and honestly, I don’t know if there’s really been a team in NBA history that’s tried to win a title by having everyone kind of participate equally. Which isn’t to say the Raptors don’t have stars, and elite players and leaders. But you know, every– of their top seven or eight players, everyone is almost as important as the next player. And I think as a fan, you know, that’s what makes them fun. And so defensively they move completely in unison. The kind of term in basketball is they play on a string. So every single movement by every other player, every single– any movement by one player precipitates, you know, a coordinated moving by the other four defenders on the team. And you can actually see it as you watch it, you can sort of watch it kind of unfold before your eyes. And it’s a kind of a beautiful thing. It really is fun to see. And once you’ve got–once you’ve noticed it. And then offensively there’s no pecking order. Everyone is entitled to take a shot that’s open. Everyone is, you know, depending on what the opposing defence is doing, everyone is sort of playing to create the best shot for the best, you know, at the right moment, regardless of who’s taking it. So there’s no like, okay, there’s three seconds left or there’s 15 seconds left, the Raptors have the ball, we’ll clear out and watch Kawhi Leonard go to work, which is satisfying in a way, but now there’s 15 seconds left, let’s, you know, kind of run a play that is going to create the best outcome, regardless of whoever is going to take the shot in the end. And, you know, it’s a fun way to watch basketball, and it’s going to be really fascinating to see if it can work at the highest level.
Jordan: When the Raptors are playing well, you know, if you’re a casual fan and you’re coming back to the playoffs, what should you be looking for at the start of a game to, you know, sort of figure out if they’re on, if they’re playing at their highest level? What do you want to see? How do they beat teams?
Michael: That’s a good question. I think, I mean, their identity is their team defence. They’re, depending on which measure you use, they’re the number one or number two ranked defence in the NBA, have been all year, and they seem to be getting better. So, you know, right off the bat, you know, what I was referring to there, just that coordination and the speed with which they can cover ground defensively is a great telling detail. But I think offensively, and they’ve been sort of a top 10, slightly worse than top 10 offence, which is good, but they’ve shown flashes of being much better. And I think offensively, the two things I look for are, you know, Kyle Lowery is sort of, as much as his team doesn’t have a star, Kyle Lowry, is its engine, its conscience, its leader. And you know, if people look back to game six of the NBA finals, when they won in Golden State, it was Kyle Lowry who opened up the scoring, scored 11 straight points. And I think when Kyle Lowry is playing great, really looking for his offence, really forcing the defence to respect him, and he’s shooting well, that’s when the Raptors are almost a lock to me because, you know, he is sort of the, kind of the engine that makes everything go. And when he’s shooting really well, it just makes life so difficult, because then the defence has to react to him and he is just so unselfish in terms of creating a place for his teammates around, who in turn have more space, and everything really flows from there.
Jordan: And when they lose, where do they fall short? You know, we’ve talked about them being a complete team. What’s their weakness?
Michael: They rely, I mean, they’re very modern team and they rely on three point shooting in high volume. And I say, modern, you know, back in the old days, right? Like, you know, you had a big centre and you posted them up as close to the basket as you could, and you’re pitching to him, and waiting for him to score two points, and in the last three, four or five years especially, offensive just said, you know what, if we put up more three point shots, and then, you know, they’re obviously more valuable. And so, you know, if we can score those that at a reasonable rate, then, you know, our offence is more efficient. The Raptors subscribe to that completely. But it’s kind of a high variant strategy, as this, you know, the stat wonks would say. So, they’ve had games this year where they’ve, you know, shot 6 for 40, from the three point line, it looks horrible, and you know, they’re the same shots, the guys are still open, their feet are set, and it’s still a difficult shot. And you kind of make them in bunches and you can miss them in clusters as well. And so that can be a really frustrating experience, to watch a team playing really well, seemingly doing the right things and the clang, clang, clang, clang, clang, you know, they’re getting beat by 15. So, that’s, I would say is where they might struggle. And then it will be interesting to see if offensively, or I should say, really if defensive– what does happen in the playoffs as you play better teams that have more superstar talent, and they in turn play more of the game, they aren’t trying to rest them anymore. They’re going to play him, you know, 40, 42 minutes, can, you know, at a certain point that just becomes a really heavy burden for any defence. And so that’ll be interesting to see if the Raptors’ kind of equal opportunity strategy can hold up against, you know, sheer talent and brilliance that, you know, eventually you’re going to run into, if you’re going to try and win an NBA title.
Jordan: I won’t ask you to make a prediction, but if I had to ask, what is–
Michael: If I had to ask you, what would your prediction be?
Jordan: Yeah, no, no. But, what would a reasonable expectation for this team be? I know if we asked anybody in the bubble with the Raptors, anything less than a repeat would be a disappointment. But, you know, where do they need to reach for this season to be a respectable followup to history last year?
Michael: I think as long as they get out of the first round, I think they’ll probably have achieved what somebody like me would have judged their potential, and probably overachieved in the eyes of some. I think, based on what I’ve seen this year and what I’ve seen lately, I think it’s reasonable to think the Raptors can go to the NBA finals again. I think, you know, the Celtics and probably the Milwaukee Bucks are most likely two opponents in the second round and in the conference finals, are both really good teams and the Bucks have been the best team in the NBA all year by number. But I think the Raptors are well positioned. So I think it’s completely reasonable, not a lock, but completely reasonable to think the Raptors can make an NBA final. Then you’ll have your ultimate test of what I’ve been referring to, you know, cause you’re probably gonna play either the Los Angeles Clippers with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, kind of two hall of fame level superstars, or you’re going to play with the Los Angeles Lakers, who have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who are two of the top five players in the world right now, you know? So, years and years and years of basketball tradition say a team like the Raptors can’t beat those two teams, but the Raptors have consistently proven experts like me wrong. And so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think the Raptors have a reasonable chance at an NBA championship again.
Jordan: That’s pretty impressive and lofty goals. And I’m just glad to have this team back. Thanks, Michael.
Michael: My pleasure, Jordan.
Jordan: Michael Grange of SportsNet. That was The Big Story. If you would like more, including all the other times that we’ve celebrated the Raptors championship, you can find them at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. You can of course, write to us anytime the email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. And of course, as always, in every podcast player you could possibly imagine, including one called Pod Father, I’m not kidding you. Claire Brassard is the lead producer of The Big Story, Ryan Clarke and Stefanie Phillips are our associate producers. Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor. And I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening. Have a great weekend. We’ll talk Monday. Go Raptors.
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