There’s no joy in Hogtown on the hockey front after a post-Olympics swoon by the Maple Leafs caused them to fall out of the playoff picture in the NHL. But thanks to the inspired play of the NBA’s Raptors sports fans in Toronto are not without a team to cheer for in the post-season.
Early on it didn’t look like the Raptors were destined for any playoff glory. They stumbled out of the gate with 6W-12L record, but turned things around after a blockbuster seven-player trade with the Sacramento Kings in December. Led by 6′ 7″ guard DeMar DeRozen, 6’9″ forward Amir Johnson, 6’11” centre Jonas Valanciunas, and a generally solid supporting cast, the Raptors set a franchise record for wins with 48 against 34 losses.
That was good enough for the third seed in the generally weak Eastern Conference behind the Indiana Pacers and defending champion Miami Heat. That earned the Raptors a date with the Brooklyn Nets who are coached by former all-star guard Jason Kidd and led by veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The Nets were the sixth seed in the conference with a 44W-38L record — although one of those losses, a 29 point debacle against the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday, was facilitated by Kidd’s decision to rest all five of his starters and dress only seven players.
That was done to tilt the odds in favour of a first-round match-up against the Raptors over another possible date against the physical Chicago Bulls. Now that the Nets have the match-up they wanted, they have to deal with a Toronto team that NBA analyst Charles Barkley flagged recently as one to watch out for in the playoffs.
The seven game series opens in Toronto on Saturday afternoon (TSN 10:30 a.m. Regina time). It’s the Raptors first playoff appearance in six years, and to tap into surging fan interest the Raptors have been pumping a “We the North” campaign that emphasizes their outsider status in the NBA as the only Canadian team.