TORONTO — It seems ridiculous to have the first game in a best-of-seven feel series like a must-win game.
And yet, here we are.
The Toronto Raptors have a thing about Game 1s. You are probably familiar with the story: they are 1-12 in franchise history in the first game of a playoff series, having last won one of them when Jean Chretien was Prime Minister. Six of those losses have come at home, against lower-seeded teams.
And so, Kyle Lowry, asked on Friday afternoon about the importance of Game 1 against Washington, said this: “Our Game 1 is our Game 7 tomorrow, to be honest. That’s just how we’ve gotta do it.”
The Raptors certainly know that it will not be an elimination game on Saturday evening; they have three series wins in the last two seasons despite the Game 1 struggles. But Lowry is not wrong to feel like they need this one. In this season of their evolution, when they had everyone thinking that this team had reached a new plane of existence, and then had everyone reconsider that when they were smacked in the nuggets by the Cavaliers twice in recent weeks, a win in Game 1 against the Wizards would go some distance to convincing fans, opponents — and themselves — that these are not, in fact, the same old Raptors.
Lowry said his team is loose and confident now, and he said they have been uptight in series openers in recent seasons. The losses only exacerbated that feeling.
“I mean, we’ve lost a lot of Game 1s,” Lowry said.
Quite why they have done that remains something of a mystery. Lowry suggested they haven’t played hard enough, but coach Dwane Casey waved away any thought that effort might have been partly to blame.
“I don’t think guys go out there and not play hard,” he said, suggesting that perhaps other teams see the losses and come in with extra confidence. “It’s got to be mental more than anything. But it’s not effort.”
The coach also said something that was pretty on-the-nose: “It’s a phenomenon.”
One of those things, that is, for which there is not a clear answer. How weird is the Raptors’ streak? Over the last two seasons, NBA teams not based in Toronto have a record of 23-4 on home court in the first game of a playoff series. The Raptors are 0-3 in that situation over the same period. This isn’t hockey, where scoring chances are limited and a hot goalie can flip an outcome all by himself. Basketball is much more predictable, and good teams win at home in the postseason far more often than not.
Unless it is a Game 1 in Toronto. There is one element to the losing streak, though, that is not all that mysterious: poor shooting. Over the past two seasons, when the Game 1 struggles were particularly acute since the team could no longer blame youth or playoff inexperience, the Raptors have shot in their openers like they were aiming at a ball-sized hoop. In two of those five games they shot under 40 per cent from the field, and in four of them they hit fewer than 25 per cent of their shots from three-point range. (And in three of them, less than 22 per cent from distance — more clanging than a town crier convention.)
Lowry, in particular, has been dreadful from beyond the arc in those games, especially since he’s been close to a 40 per cent shooter from that range in recent seasons. Over series openers against Indiana, Miami, Cleveland and Milwaukee, Lowry was a combined 2 for 27 on three-pointers until finally managing to be 2 for 4 from distance in the second round against Cleveland last year. This could be why he wants to approach Saturday’s game against the Wizards with a certain urgency.
“If that’s what it takes to get himself going in Game 1, that’s fine,” Casey said. He noted that when shots haven’t fallen in some of those games, the offensive problems carry over to the defensive end. That way lies bad losses. But the coach also said that this new-look Raptors offence, if one can still consider it new in Game 83, was designed at least in part to find scoring elsewhere if the team’s two All-Stars cannot make baskets.
“That’s the plan — that that is going to take care of some of the woes we’ve had in Game 1,” Casey said.
It is an awkward thing for the coach. He knows the history, he knows how all the same questions will be asked of his team if they end up laying another egg. But he also doesn’t want to overdo it, to wind everyone up so much that they are tense and freaked out again. Perhaps they could all take a page from C.J. Miles, who came to Toronto in the off-season and was apparently blissfully unaware of the Raptors’ Game 1 horrors. “No idea,” he said. “I hadn’t even thought about it. I didn’t know it was a thing until just now.” Maybe let him take the first few shots.
Casey said, reasonably, that this has been a season of firsts. They had never won 59 games in a season or 34 at home, and have now done both. They used to struggle like all hell against Chicago and Charlotte and were 8-0 against them this season. And now here is another dragon to be slayed.
“I have all the faith in the world we’re going to come out and be the similar team we’ve been in the regular season,” Casey said. “That’s the trust we have in our players and we gotta have, not looking at the history.”
But until they get that win, that history will be there.
Recent Raptors Game 1s
2016, First Round
Indiana 100 Toronto 90
The Raptors blow a two-point halftime lead, Paul George scores 33, and DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are a combined 1 for 10 from three-point range.
2016, Second Round
Miami 102 Toronto 96
The Raptors blow a two-point halftime lead, but send the game to overtime on a late bomb from Kyle Lowry, who had missed his first six three-pointers. Toronto loses in overtime anyway.
2016, Third Round
Cleveland 115 Toronto 84
The Raptors hang around until the second quarter, when Cleveland outscores them 33-16 on the way to a 22-point halftime lead, and that is pretty much that. Kyle Lowry is 0-for-7 from three-point range.
2017, First Round
Milwaukee 97 Toronto 83
The Bucks get 28 points and a serious fright from Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Raptors get terrible shooting from DeMar DeRozan (7 for 21) and Kyle Lowry (2 for 11). Toronto’s two All-Stars missed all eight of their combined three-point attempts.
2017, Second Round
Cleveland 116 Toronto 105
As has become custom, the Cavaliers blow Toronto out of Quicken Loans arena, scoring 62 points in the first half. LeBron James, on the way to 35 points, pretends to take a swig of beer from a courtside vendor in the middle of the game. Metaphor alert.
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