The Dallas Loss, And The Changing State Of Raptors Fandom

The dreaded winnable game loss.  There’s nothing worse.  Any time the Raptors lose isn’t fun, but dropping winnable games you are in position to win just is so frustrating.

Last night against Dallas was a classic example.  The Raptors at several points in the game were in control and looked an almost certainty to win.  But they didn’t.  They fell into the trap so many NBA teams do night after night–cliché alert–they failed to “put a team away” and turned a comfortable win into a loss.  Both the Dallas and New Orléans followed the same script and I’m sure one read  of any Raptor’s blog forum this morning will be filled with unhinged fans furious with this loss.

Last night’s loss to Dallas got me thinking about this Raptors team, the emotions behind this loss and it all struck me as strange…

Because for over 20 years this has all be alien to Raptors fans.  Over the history of this team I’ve learned to deal with the losing 40. 50. and even 60 (!) games a year.  I’ve learned to deal with the blowouts.  I’ve learned to accept we just aren’t going to beat certain teams.  I’ve learned not to get too upset about missing the playoffs.  I’ve learned not to get upset by losses like last night and in New Orléans.

At least until this year.  Really for the first time as Raptors fan we’re beginning to learn how to deal with winning and expectations of our team.

This year I feels like I’m watching a completely different team from the one I’ve rooted for the last 20 years.  This franchise synonymous with losing, who have lost a lot–in nearly every conceivable way–are now good, and winning games against all teams, and in any circumstance.

It’s why I struggle with games like the Dallas game tonight, even though it was a completely understandable loss.  It had a “schedule loss” written all over it and a dozen other excuses I would have been the first to bring up in years past.  But now I expect to win, so these losses (and don’t kid yourself Dallas is a fine team, but very beatable) are now so frustrating.

Last night stuck to a very familiar script.  Toronto plays well against a good team on the road, stretch the lead at times, get out of sorts offensively, fade and wind up losing.

I use to hate fans that not only expected wins but have this belief that their teams are entitled to win.  Much of this hate was born out of jealously, but also came from the frustration at how easily they dismissed and discredited my team. Now we are doing it.  Now I feel it.  Games like Dallas just hammer it home to me how I (and I think we) have developed that same entitled and expectant attitude fans of all winning teams get.  We’ve become fans of a good team all of a sudden and it feels weird.  We expect to win, which we almost never have in the past, with that brings expectations, and more potential for disappointment.

The Raptors well and truly should have won last night.  They had multiple double-digit leads in the game, led at half and led heading into the fourth. But then the wheels fell off.  During an early stretch in the fourth (when Casey stuck to his refusal to play anything but an all bench line up) Dallas reeled the raptors in, stayed close until they took a lead and eventually extended it.  Dallas deserves great credit for the win…but this game was there for Toronto to win.  Just like New Orléans was, and for at least a little while the Houston game was too.

So how did they lose?

Dallas had great guard play aside from Rondo, their bench played well, JV got into foul trouble in the third and the Raps back court was dreadful. Plus the Raptors were on a back to back, and playing for the fourth night in five days.  Again these losses happen, and we should be able to accept this.  Even if the Raptors win 52 games this year, a franchise record, they will still lose 30 games.

Most frustrating perhaps, is that Toronto fell into the same traps that have hurt them a lot recently;  A lack of consistent effort throughout the game, way too many turnovers and a late game offense that got completely bogged down.  It’s this last point that is most important, because I also think it is at least partly at root for the turnover problem Toronto has had lately.  Toronto has been an ISO heavy team all year, but have seemed to only increase the amount of one on one play in their offence especially in the fourth quarter with disastrous results.  Breaking off plays to run isos which eliminates much of the good ball movement they had, creating fewer easy looks, and resulting in more tough shots  and more turnovers.  Despite having a great record still, this formula has certainly cost the Raptors a few unnecessary losses over the last few months, along with poor defensive play.

Of course its great when it works…when shots are falling, especially from Lou Williams, the Toronto Raptors look almost unbeatable. But lately it is happening less and less. Derozan and Lowry in particular have been really struggling; not hitting shots and turning the ball over at a higher rate. And these failures only embolden them to shoot, and break off from the offense to try to carry the team to victory themselves.  It’s admirable but has created massive problems in the offense, especially late in close games.

Things now get so bogged down that they are finding it increasingly difficult to score in the fourth, and it’s effecting their defense as well.  Missed long shots (seemingly the only shots Derozan and Lowry are taking now) create long rebounds which lead to fast break opportunities and doesn’t allow the Raptors to get their defense set too–making them easier to score on.

In the last two games they’ve had the lead going into the fourth quarter and lost it.  Which for most of the season has been rare. Since the franchise changing Rudy Gay trade they’ve been great at closing games out when leading after three-quarters.  But current struggles are turning these trends on their head, so the raptors are playing closer games and turning wins into losses.  Two months ago that game last night would have been a win.  The second half of last year that game would have been a win.  But now, with the problems on offense late in games, and the defense–slowly improving, not yet where it needs to be–these games are much less of a certainty now.

A reality check to cut through the disappointment and the doom and gloom of last night.  The fact we are even talking about this, and being disappointed with a loss in Dallas on a back to back blows my mind.  For years this would have been a completely acceptable and understandable loss.  But now it’s not.  It’s the new reality. We expect to win.  I mean really expect to win night after night for the first time since 2000 to 2002, and maybe even more so than we did then.  We are well and truly learning how to root or a winning team.

Our fandom is now weighed down by a really good team and by an unfamiliar expectancy for wins.  As much as it makes some of these losses tougher, it also makes the highs higher and I love rooting for a team that you expect to win.

But it’s still weird, awkward and uncomfortable sort of like the Raptors’s predictably disjointed offense of late–except I actually enjoy the winning, not the offense of late.  Plus we’re 18 games over .500 which doesn’t hurt.

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