TORONTO — There were times on Saturday night when the sound of the Air Canada Centre was the sound of 19,937 people exhaling nervously.
They had good reason to feel angst. Over their Game 1 losing streak that spanned 17 years and 10 contests, the Toronto Raptors had found different ways to come up short, but the most common problem was ice-cold shooting. On Saturday night, though, they were strafing the Washington Wizards, hitting more than 50 per cent of their shots from the field and a gaudy 53 per cent from three-point range — and still they couldn’t pull away.
One could forgive the fans in attendance for wondering if this was all going to fall apart again: Maybe they should just concede Game 1s. It would be a lot less painful.
In the end, of course, all was well. Two second-half runs, one at the start of the third quarter and one about four minutes into the fourth, had the arena roaring as various Raptors drilled three-pointers. The Toronto crowd explodes at those moments, a mixture of joy and relief.
But what that Air Canada Centre crowd has never been is overconfident, and there’s good reason for that, too. Overshadowed somewhat by the Raptors’ baffling stretch of Game 1 losses was another fact about Toronto basketball: the team has never, not once in 22 years of existence, held a two-game lead in the middle of a playoff series.
And so, with the stink of all those Game 1s finally exhumed, and with the Raptors preparing for Game 2 against the Wizards with, lo, an actual lead in the series, we will now find out if the Raptors can make it at least mildly easy on themselves. For once.
There have been times when it looked like they might just do that. In the first round against Brooklyn five seasons ago, Toronto twice trailed in the series before winning two straight to take a 3-2 lead. The storyline was simple: a young Raptors team that had come out of nowhere to blitz the league down the stretch had wobbled a bit in their first taste of the playoffs, but with nerves now out of the way they were back to playing good basketball again.
They promptly lost two straight, including Game 7 at home. Two years later, after a franchise record 56 wins and with the two seed in the East, the Raptors laid their usual egg in the opener against Indiana, evened the series in Game 2, and then went to Indianapolis and blew the Pacers out of their building.
It felt like the Raptors had found themselves. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry had each had 21-point nights, and Jonas Valanciunas was a giant Lithuanian wrecking ball inside. The Raptors were up 53-36 at the half, and the Indiana arena had large pockets of noisy red-clad fans who became only more loud as Toronto cruised to victory and the Pacers’ fans left early. Again, the storyline was simple: Toronto was better and much deeper, and the Indy fans didn’t even seem to like those Pacers all that much. Series over, yes?
The Pacers won Game 4, 100-83.
It’s a pattern that repeated itself eerily in the following round against Miami. The Raptors dropped Game 1, then asserted themselves over Games 2 and 3 to take the series lead. Lowry, who had been fighting his shot all post-season, had finally gone off for 33 points, including five three-pointers on eight attempts in the win in Miami. The sun was shining both literally and figuratively.
The Heat won Game 4, 94-87. Lowry missed all six of his three-point attempts. And, as had happened against the Pacers, the Raptors went on to drop a Game 6 that could have clinched the series, forcing them into an elimination game that they needed to win to survive.
That trend was eventually snapped last season, when the Raptors did their usual wobble out of the gate before winning three straight to finish off the Milwaukee Bucks in six games. For silver-linings types, the Raptors have now won four straight playoff games against teams that do not include LeBron James.
And so now, one more chance to do things the easy way. The Raptors did enough in Game 1 to give their doubters pause: Even with Lowry and DeRozan somewhat contained, Toronto won with depth, which is exactly what this roster was designed to do. While it has traditionally been the Raptors who are forced to ponder their fate after Game 1, now it is the Wizards playing that role. Washington has now lost six of seven games, the lone win coming last week against a Boston team that had nothing to gain with a victory. The Wizards have won two of their last 11 games and seven of their last 22. They are standing there, wobbly, with their chin exposed.
It’s a punch the Raptors have usually missed. But they have done a lot of unexpected things this season.