Will the Rap­tors end Toronto’s dif­fi­cult relationship with win­ning?

Gulf Times Sport - - SPORT - By Eoin O’Cal­laghan

In Toronto, it’s the hope that kills you. It’s a sports-mad place boast­ing com­pet­i­tive teams across a mul­ti­tude of codes but lots of chaos and a dearth of suc­cess. And even when the city’s fran­chises man­age to get a taste of it, the fizz is fleet­ing.

Base­ball’s Blue Jays claimed back-to-back World Se­ries ti­tles in 1992 and 1993, and then didn’t reach the play­offs for 21 years. The Maple Leafs have won more Stan­ley Cups than all but two NHL clubs, but none in more than 50 years. As re­cently as 2012, they were voted the most em­bar­rass­ing team to sup­port.

Toronto FC bounced from one hu­mil­i­at­ing episode to the next be­fore their MLS Cup tri­umph in 2017. But fol­low­ing the pat­tern of self-de­struc­tion, the joy was short-lived and they failed to qual­ify for the post­sea­son ear­lier this year.

Canada’s largest city has a dif­fi­cult relationship with win­ning. It doesn’t hap­pen very of­ten and on the rare oc­ca­sions when it does, it doesn’t re­ally know what to do with it.

And that’s why there re­mains an un­shak­able spec­tre over­hang­ing the Toronto Rap­tors this sea­son.

After a seis­mic sum­mer de­fined by splashy trans­ac­tions, the team has tran­si­tioned im­pres­sively and re­mains well in con­tention to fin­ish at the top of the East­ern Con­fer­ence for the second suc­ces­sive year. The Rap­tors are not a side ac­cus­tomed to drama and con­flict so, con­sid­er­ing the off­sea­son saw the fir­ing of long-time coach Dwane Casey and the trade of the leg­endary DeMar DeRozan, that’s no small feat.

The re­crim­i­na­tions and fin­ger-point­ing still linger but go­ing by the per­for­mances so far this term, there’s no scar tis­sue. The play­ers seem in­vested in Nick Nurse, who was brought on by Casey as an as­sis­tant back in 2013 be­fore slid­ing into the lead role in June. And de­spite the trauma of the DeRozan trade, the gam­ble of bring­ing in Kahwi Leonard as his re­place­ment has worked a treat.

Many won­dered which Leonard would show up in Toronto. He’d been im­mense for San An­to­nio and was voted MVP when the Spurs beat Mi­ami in the 2014 fi­nals. There were back-to-back All-NBA first team ap­pear­ances in 2016 and 2017, too. But things ended bit­terly last sea­son when a quad in­jury led to a pro­longed ab­sence and ten­sion re­gard­ing best treat­ment. His relationship with Gregg Popovich broke down and he looked for a way out.

But, when Toronto was first mooted as a pos­si­ble des­ti­na­tion, it was claimed that Leonard was un­der­whelmed, had ‘no de­sire’ in go­ing there and much pre­ferred a switch to his home­town of Los Angeles.

Still, with some pres­sure on his shoul­ders, he’s smiled, stepped up and, most im­por­tantly, de­liv­ered in the big games. He’s poured in 30 or more points on 13 oc­ca­sions, in­clud­ing a ca­reer-high 45-point haul against Utah on New Year’s Day.

And when he was mer­ci­lessly booed and kept quiet on his much-vaunted re­turn to San An­to­nio two days later, there was no mood­i­ness. When he stepped to the free throw line dur­ing the second quar­ter and thou­sands of home fans screamed “traitor” re­lent­lessly, there was no re­ac­tion. And when the game was done, there was a laugh, a joke and warm em­brace with Popovich.

Of course, it hasn’t all been about him.

Kyle Lowry, Danny Green and Pas­cal Si­akam have ex­celled and, quite rightly, much has been made of the ros­ter’s depth. With the East­ern Con­fer­ence sel­dom as wide open, it’s not out­landish to look at the Rap­tors as favourites to reach their first NBA fi­nals and gen­uine cham­pi­onship con­tenders.

How­ever, you can’t shake the past: Toronto have been here very re­cently.

There was last sea­son’s record-break­ing cam­paign: 59 wins and the con­fer­ence’s No 1 seed en­ter­ing the play­offs for the first time in club his­tory. Then it all came crash­ing down when they were white­washed by LeBron James and the Cava­liers for a second straight year.

It was a hu­mil­i­at­ing end to a sea­son that had been burst­ing with prom­ise. In 2017, team pres­i­dent Ma­sai Ujiri spoke of a ‘cul­ture re­set’. Alas, noth­ing had changed. De­spite all the talk, all the hype, all of those At­lantic Divi­sion ti­tles, there was still a val­ley of empti­ness when it mat­tered most.

For Ujiri, it seemed that mind­set was a big prob­lem un­der Casey, who had per­formed small mir­a­cles to trans­form the Rap­tors from per­sis­tent punch­line to East­ern Con­fer­ence heavy­weights. Though they had clearly blos­somed through­out Casey’s seven years in charge, there seemed lit­tle be­lief within the team as they headed into high­pro­file matchups against LeBron. So Ujiri rolled the dice.

“It’s the hard­est thing I’ve done in my life,” he later told re­porters of his decision to fire Casey, who was voted Coach of the Year by his peers two days ear­lier and who’d go on to be named NBA Coach of the Year too. But, Ujiri made sure to add that it was a ‘very dif­fi­cult but nec­es­sary step’.

When the DeRozan trade fol­lowed in mid-sum­mer, it was rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Rap­tors’ new era: ruth­less, busi­nes­sori­ented and cold-blooded.

Mov­ing on the team’s big­gest star and bring­ing in Leonard was a bold decision. Again, cer­tainly not what the Rap­tors were known for. Push­ing out both Casey and DeRozan – seven- and nine-year vet­er­ans of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, re­spec­tively – was hardly co­in­ci­den­tal. Gone was that cliche Cana­dian nice­ness.

But it has been tough for fans to prop­erly park the nos­tal­gia and em­brace the new ver­sion of the side. Casey’s fu­ture had been a fre­quent sports-bar dis­cus­sion ever since the 2018 play­off se­ries with the Cavs took a fa­mil­iar turn. He con­trib­uted so much to the team’s de­vel­op­ment and im­mersed him­self in the city.

Leonard be­comes a free agent at the end of the sea­son and Ujiri would do well to per­suade him to stick around. But will sup­port­ers care too much if he helps the Rap­tors land the con­fer­ence ti­tle … or bet­ter?

Nurse is a rookie NBA coach, plucked from the Rio Grande Val­ley Vipers of the NBA’s de­vel­op­men­tal G League and pre­vi­ously a two-time coach of the year in the Bri­tish Bas­ket­ball League. But, cru­cially, his play­ers like him. Last month, he was fined $15,000 after crit­i­cis­ing of­fi­cials for not pro­tect­ing Leonard enough dur­ing a loss in Den­ver. The sup­port wasn’t lost on Leonard, who spoke af­ter­wards about Nurse hav­ing his back.

And the coach’s pas­sion wasn’t lost on fans ei­ther.

And while the reg­u­lar sea­son has been a big suc­cess, the play­offs will of­fer plenty of nerves, par­tic­u­larly with LeBron not around to get in their heads this time. On pa­per, they’re in a much stronger po­si­tion than last year. But con­sid­er­ing the in­vest­ment in the short term, there seems im­mense pres­sure on the team do­ing some­thing spe­cial in 2019. If that doesn’t hap­pen, and Leonard walks in the sum­mer while Ujiri is faced with start­ing over again, will it have all been worth it?

Then again, per­haps the new­era Rap­tors, who are in­tent on look­ing to the fu­ture rather than the past, won’t care too much.

(USA TODAY Sports)

Kawhi Leonard (in white) has de­liv­ered on his prom­ise since join­ing the Rap­tors from the Spurs.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Qatar

© PressReader. All rights reserved.