This postseason was supposed to be different for the Toronto Raptors. Kawhi Leonard was here. Danny Green was here. There was a new head coach in town. The previous regime of playoff failures was supposed to be over and done with.
But in Game 1 of the Raptors’ first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the Orlando Magic on Saturday, it was more of the same.
Toronto fell behind big early, and while it did make a run to get back into the game, it was already too late, as the Raptors had given the Magic all of the confidence they needed to know that they can win.
D.J. Augustin then buried a dagger three-pointer to silence the Toronto fans and send Orlando to a 104-101 win, and the Raptors fell to 2-14 in Game 1s in their franchise history.
Leonard had an impressive game, finishing with 25 points off a 10-of-18 clip, but thanks to Kyle Lowry posting a grand total of zero points (yes; zero), it was not enough.
Now, the Raptors face the kind of pressure that they have never felt before in any of their previous first-round playoff series on Tuesday night. If Toronto loses this game, it will end up in a 2-0 hole going to Orlando for a Game 3, and that is something that simply cannot happen.
Just imagine the reactions if the Raptors aren’t able to come away with a win here. Forget the “same old, same old” talk. This would be full-blown crisis mode in T. Dot.
The Raptors were picked by many to represent the Eastern Conference in the finals, and the Magic were supposed to represent nothing more than a mere speedbump for Toronto in its quest to battle the Golden State Warriors.
Instead, Orlando, which has been playing very well since late January, punched the Raptors in the mouth early in Game 1 and let Nick Nurse’s group know that this was not going to be easy.
The whole reason why the Raptors took the risk of trading for Leonard over the summer was to contend for a championship this season. In doing so, they traded away their homegrown All-Star in DeMar DeRozan, a player who, while impressive, became synonymous with Toronto’s playoff failures over the course of the last several years.
Leonard, a superstar with a Finals MVP under his belt, was expected to completely change the culture, along with Green, who won a title with Kawhi as San Antonio Spurs back in 2014. And during the regular season, the effect seemed to rub off on everyone else.
For once, the Raptors genuinely looked like a title contender. They no longer appeared to be a good regular-season team that you knew would surely get bounced in the playoffs. This time, Toronto looked for real.
But in Game 1, those same old demons came back, and the tension reverberated throughout the arena.
Here is the thing: Leonard is set to be a free agent this summer, and the general consensus is that he will not be re-signing with the Raptors as it is. However, you would have to think that if Toronto makes a deep playoff run, then it stands a chance of bringing him back.
But if the Raptors flame out in the first round against the seven-seeded Orlando Magic? Kawhi is 100 percent gone, and I don’t even think the most diehard Toronto fans would deny that.
Make no mistake about it: the Raptors have to win this series. Not just for respect and not just to shake off past playoff struggles, but for the future of the franchise.
Let’s face it: if Leonard leaves, Toronto is back at square one. It will then be left with an aging Lowry and some decent supporting talent. A solid team? Perhaps, but hardly a real contender, and it’s not like Toronto is a primetime free-agent destination.
Again, Leonard may just end up leaving the Raptors anyway regardless of what happens in these playoffs. Los Angeles seems to be calling, and some even feel like Kawhi in a Clippers jersey is already a done deal. And if Toronto loses to Orlando? It becomes a guarantee that he will walk.
Of course, I think the Raptors will answer the bell and win on Tuesday evening. It seems highly doubtful that Lowry will score zero points again, and it also doesn’t seem very likely that the Magic will go 14-of-29 from three-point range for a second straight game.
So, chances are, this thing will be going back to Orlando tied 1-1. But if the Raptors get off to a cold start in this one? The restlessness will be palpable throughout Scotiabank Arena. Palms will get sweaty, legs will get tight, and pressure will begin to mount.
Toronto needs this game in more ways than one.