At the end of Game 5, the Raptors took a 3-2 series lead in dramatic, heart-stopping fashion. For the second and third quarters, they showed exactly why they’re not a team to be taken lightly when firing on all cylinders. The fourth quarter showed their immaturity for the most part, but they proved their maturity in the last four minutes with the ability to close out games as they’ve been doing throughout both the regular and postseason.
One thing that has kept the Raptors motivated and hungry for victories is their underdog mentality. “We The North” is more than just a catchy slogan created by the MLSE marketing department, it’s a reality. The fact that they’ve been the lone Canadian franchise in the league for over a decade and have seen some of its most promising stars come and go has contributed much to the label. But through the trial and error of so many years, this season’s group recognizes how far the franchise has come, as well as how their own careers have grown. Banding together, they’re out to prove that they’re a threat to any team that challenges them, and that includes the possibility of beating Brooklyn in Game 7.
This series has proven to be one of the most entertaining and closely-contested matchups of the first round, with many storylines drawing the fans in: young vs. old, athletic vs. experienced, student vs. master (referring to the teams’ dueling coaches) and even fans vs. fans. Raptors forward Amir Johnson realizes how closely the series has been and feels that it will take a battle of cerebral fortitude to gain the edge.
“It’s a chess match, you know you just gotta figure out a scheme, defensive schemes, and offensive schemes and go through it and do our best,” he told BALLnROLL.com. “It’s been back and forth.”
With pressure mounting for the Raps’ to perform well in their first postseason rumble in six years, their level of focus has been evident. In fact, it’s necessary to overcome many of the players’ first playoffs jitters. This couldn’t be more true for Johnson, whose focus got the best of him prior to Toronto’s latest home game.
“It is my birthday coming up, huh?” Johnson asked members of the press when his birthday (May 1) was brought up. “Yeah, I didn’t realize it but, um, yeah, I’ve been so tuned in to the series, I didn’t even think about it.”
One noticeable quality about the Raps this season is that good is not good enough for their standards. They’re never complacent or satisfied with just getting a win. They want to do it in convincing fashion and leave their mark to show the rest of the league that they are a credible threat.
Raptors head coach Dwayne Casey has spoken very highly about his squad in terms of their fourth quarter production throughout the year. However, despite their Game 5 victory, he acknowledges the flaws that became apparent in the final Q.
“We take that [win], but again, we can’t live that way. I said that all year: our history’s been pretty good in the fourth quarter,” said Casey. “Tonight, for whatever reason, they flipped the switch and flipped the script.”
As the leader on the sidelines, he brings it upon himself to stress the importance of consistency and maintaining a tight group over the course of an entire game, rather than just a few quarters. According to Casey, when they’ve completed those tasks and stopped repeating their mistakes, then that’s when they’ve truly won.
“That’s something we gotta learn from. We’re here, we’re excited about being in the playoffs, it’s somewhere we haven’t been before,” said Casey following the Raptors taking their (since tied) 3-2 lead in their series. “[They are a] young team, [I’m] expecting the mistakes, but again, we gotta crack the whip and learn from it. And it’s a hell of a time to start learning, going into Game 6 of the playoffs.”
As much as we’ve seen the maturation of the Raptors all season, we’ve seen that trend continue into the playoffs on a whole new level. Certain risks that they would have taken in the 82-game regular season stretch are increasingly uncommon in the post season. Raptors forward DeMar DeRozan is one player to show signs of such a transformation, passing up on more than a just few alley-oop plays.
“In playoffs, you can’t take that many risks. That’s just how to game goes,” explained DeRozan. “Only if it’s like a for-sure, for-sure, 100 per cent chance you’re going to have it—but it’s hard, you don’t want to make a turnover and get the other team going.”
That type of mentality shows how much more the games mean when the stakes are raised. DeRozan especially has taken advantage of less risky plays within the paint. In postseason, he’s attempted 105 field goals (making a cool 38.1 per cent) while attempting 16 three-pointers (making 31.3 per cent). He’s also drawn fouls as necessary, leading to hefty amounts of shooting from the charity strip.
This tactical growth would never have occurred without a stellar roster of players each bringing their own lessons to the table. The Raptors boast talent all around, from the starting lineup to the bench, and everyone plays their role accordingly. Whether it’s DeRozan proving why he was selected as an All-Star, Kyle Lowry showing why he was arguably the biggest snub for the mid-season classic, or Jonas Valanciunas showing wisdom beyond his 21 years, the players have meshed during their time in the trenches like a band of brothers. They don’t play for one, they play for all, and Johnson feels that’s one factor that separates them from other teams.
“Just the locker room, everyone gets along, there’s no egos, we share the ball, we play well together no matter who’s scoring the ball,” said Johnson. “It could be DeMar, Kyle, myself, Terrence, you know, we just play well together.”
That is the type of intangible that has bound the Raptors together since the regular season and has carried them to Brooklyn and back to settle the tied series, once and for all. This team has faced adversity, but nothing of this magnitude. Should the Raptors end up victorious in their upcoming pivotal game to clinch the series, then they will show their rabid fan base and the rest of the league that they’re more than a flash in the pan. They will have proven themselves a capable squad that has progressed light years faster than anyone could have imagined, and it will be the first step of many in showing the NBA that they will be contenders for years to come. The Northern Uprising is in full effect, and it might be heading south to take on Miami next.