Under The Bleachers: Toronto Raptors A Beacon Of Hope

Above: Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry and Brooklyn Nets forward Paul Pierce, on January 27, 2014, in New York (Photo: AP)
Above: Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry and Brooklyn Nets forward Paul Pierce, on January 27, 2014, in New York (Photo: AP)

Toronto should do itself a favour and forget about hockey—and baseball too—for at least a couple weeks.

There’s been such madness around the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays that the Raptors have become something of a sports afterthought in Toronto. The Leafs finally broke their own playoff drought last season and were just minutes from upsetting the vaunted Bruins, while the Blue Jays swung a massive trade last winter and went from bouncing off the bottom of the American League East to World Series contenders. Meanwhile, the Raptors have had to resort to offering Groupons to get fans into the arena.

Of course, we know the Leafs folded to the Bruins in a game Toronto sports fans will be living down for decades, then fell to pieces and missed this year’s Stanley Cup tournament altogether, losing 12 of their last 14 games. And the Blue Jays—let’s just say they’re going into their 20th season without even a whiff of a playoff game.

The Raptors, on the other hand, have quietly built a very good team—a team that obviously deserves a lot more attention from Canadian sports fans. They set a franchise record for wins this season and they’re going into the playoffs with a real chance of winning more. Not a championship, but something.

When the Toronto Raptors match up against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday it’ll be the start of just their third playoff series in the past 12 seasons. And they didn’t squeak into the postseason, they grinded out a third-place finish in the East and earned home court advantage against the Nets.

Isn’t there something satisfying about cheering for a team that wins by working hard and playing for each other, rather than supporting a bunch of unstoppable billionaire sports robots? You know what you’re getting from the Heat or the Thunder, and the Spurs have been the exact same team since approximately forever, but every win is a pleasant surprise with a scrappy team like the Raptors—and they seem to be getting better with every game.

DeMar DeRozan has become an honest-to-goodness star for Toronto, one like we haven’t seen since Vince Carter. Kyle Lowry has played like an elite point guard—not to mention a warrior who laughs in the face of pain—and Jonas Valanciunas is blossoming into a premiere centre before our very eyes.

They do have the Brooklyn Nets, a veteran squad that looked terrible before Jan. 1 and terrifying since, standing between them and the league’s elite, though. The new and vastly improved Raptors have shown they can at least hang, splitting their four regular season games with the Nets. And the Nets are aging—fine, they’re just old—while Toronto is just starting to how good they are.

The Nets’ best players’ best years are behind them, and while they’re playoff-hardened, they could have a hard time matching the Raptors’ young legs through a seven-game series. Most expect the Nets to tame the Raps, but never count a scrappy team out when it comes to the playoffs—they’ll at least make it worth your while to watch.

Even if the Raptors flame out in the playoffs, they’re set up to be right back here next year, a little older and a lot wiser. And that’s more than anyone can say for the Nets.

In Brooklyn, retro is cool, but in Toronto we’re all about the future.

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Drew Berner

Drew Berner is a freelance writer born and raised in Toronto and specializing in entertainment, sports and politics. He occasionally collects vinyl records, enjoys hate-watching the Blue Jays, appreciates good beer and great scotch, and goes to sleep each night with 120 lbs. of Great Dane draped over him (it’s a lot more comfortable than it sounds). Follow him on Twitter @DrewBerner for photos of huge dogs, observational humour and assorted sports rage.

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