By Kinnon Yee
I have been contemplating what to write for the last few days. You see, glaring flaws begin to appear as soon as your team hits the playoffs. In the regular season, we normally don’t see this because the pressure isn’t there. I, like many others, can definitely be accused of homerism. I personally blame it on the fact that I’ve been a Raptors fan since opening day, which is to say that I am part of a very vocal minority that came in before the Vince Carter era. We learned many things during those days, and it was largely thanks to both Leo Rautins and John Saunders; two of the finest basketball commentators that have every graced MLSE. I want to talk about this series that just concluded, and there are lots of things to talk about, but first, we have to go back.
We have to go to 1999.
The year 1999-2000 was amazing. We had a young player named Tracy McGrady, who was starting to live up to the potential that he was supposed to have for a very long time. A great defender who challenged all those tough defensive assignments, he was long and quick. Vince Carter, was beginning to emerge at the same time. A fabulous dunker, he was a great and prolific scorer who went to the basket constantly, and made sure the Raptors got recognition each and every night from SportsCenter and ever other sports highlight show. Together with veterans Antonio Davis and Charles Oakley, Doug Christie and Kevin Willis, the Raptors looked to turn around the horror that was left in the wake of the Isiah Thomas debacle.
I was in my first year of university, and Vince Carter’s 5 dunks changed the world.
This iteration of the Raptors team would be the first to make it to the playoffs. It would be the first time for Vince and Tracy to get to the “real season” and it would be here that they would begin their education. As luck would have it, they did not have home court advantage, and went into Madison Square Garden to battle the hardened New York Knicks. The Raptors were still a fresh young team anchored by experienced players, and many thought the team could go far. Some said that the veterans would pull the Raptors through, and get them to the next round. Nevertheless, their most prolific star players were still playoff virgins.
Not many people remember those years because they were just the beginning of what the Raptors would become. They were the building blocks of future star players, and while they had veterans anchoring the team, there were a lot of questions about the effectiveness of this team and the ability to play defense in the playoffs.
Many people might ask, “How do you know if you’re going to have a player that chokes in the playoffs, or goes on to score like always?” How do you know if you’re going to have a Michael Jordan or Dwayne Wade, who just excelled in the playoffs? In fact, most players can’t be that same superstar-type.
In the next 3 games, I would learn specific things about the game of basketball that would serve me well some 8 years later. In fact, there are a lot of parallels between these “first playoff appearances” by both Raptors teams.
1) Your star player is probably gonna struggle if he’s a playoff virgin. We saw this for the entire playoff series that Chris Bosh was completely off his shooting touch, and really got hammered. Few remember, but Vince was absolutely horrible for the entire New York series that first time, and Tracy wasn’t much better. When your offense runs through your star players, and they get completely shut down, you cannot win. Making it worse is if a coach doesn’t realize that maybe, just MAYBE, you should rely on others because your stars are trying too much. Which leads me to my second point.
2) Coaches prove themselves in the post season. Butch Carter lost it in his first post season. I would argue, though, that he may very well be, the best coach the Raptors have ever had. He managed his players well, he got them conditioned properly, and his rotations were very well thought out for the most part. But he went up against Jeff Van Gundy, a defensive guru, and was absolutely schooled on the Xs and Os side. I wouldn’t say Lawrence Frank is that great of a coach, but his understanding of substitutions and how to use them to get the best out of your team, completely destroyed Sam and his staff. There’s just no time in the playoffs for education. It’s kill or be killed, and if you have to sit your star player, then you’re gonna have to do it (especially if he’s shooting 2/13 for most of the game).
3) Veteran players and guys who have experience in pressure situations will save you. How many times did Antonio completely save us? Oakley? Doug Christie? During that series, the most productive guys were the guys that remembered to play within themselves and play their game. It’s how they got there, and it’s how they would at least keep the Raptors respectable. We saw in this series, that Anthony Parker kept us in and even won us a game. TJ Ford and Calderon played within themselves for the most part. Andrea Bargnani, a battle-tested shooter finally rounded back into form and was much more efficient and effective than Bosh. Why? Because he has dealt with it before. I’m sure he, Parker and others had difficulties the first time they experienced pressure. That’s what experience buys you; the ability to play through high tension situations.
In 1999, we saw a lot of changes in the off season. A new coach was brought in. We would see one of our two dynamic stars leave for next to nothing in the off season, placing the fortunes of the team squarely on the shoulders of a young star. We also saw the team struggle at the beginning of the next year before turning on the afterburners and laying waste to many of their competition. It’s important to note now, that Glen Grunwald made a lot of strange choices in the off season, bringing in guys like Corliss Williamson and Mark Jackson before figuring things out.
When we look at the present, we should have some confidence then, that Brian Colangelo won’t be “experimenting” so much as “getting the correct piece.” If there is one supremely striking difference between 1999 and 2007, it’s that we have management that knows how to build. It’s this management experience that knows how to bring us to the next step.
In the end of 2007, I have a lot of questions about Sam Mitchell as a coach, and the coaching staff. I have a lot fewer about this Raptors team, and what needs to be done. I also know that the team that won this series, deserved to win, because they played the way they were supposed to in the playoffs. Do anything to win is the creed, and the complete Raptors team didn’t get that memo. It’s fine. This year was a learning experience. Maybe with one more veteran (I have never missed Jorge Garbajosa so much in my life), it would have made a difference. But I want to say this: We should be proud of our team, for what they managed to do in the regular season. They exceeded the expectations of most, and came up a little short in the last. We will have experience on our side next time. You know, maybe Bosh won’t use too much adrenaline next time and backrim every single basket. If history is any indication, experience will take us far. Undoubtedly, there were many disappointed, and there are a lot of questions that I have for Sam, but that’s for another day. For now, we should be thankful that the future looks so bright and that we have a team that will continue to get better still, with management that knows we have pieces missing, and knows that sometimes you need to give up something to get something.
And as I said to Ryan…
At least we’re not Mavs fans.