Lewenberg: Budding rivalry between the Raptors and Nets?

Josh Lewenberg
4/20/2014 6:17:02 PM
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TORONTO - The Raptors and Nets don't like each other, even after one playoff game that has been made abundantly clear.

If you're looking to trace back that animosity, start with Toronto's one-point victory at Barclays Center in late January.

There was a playoff-type buzz in the building that night. DeMar DeRozan sat out with an ankle injury, Kyle Lowry and Paul Pierce both turned in playoff-type performances. There were 18 lead changes, nine ties and three technical fouls - on Lowry, Piece and Kevin Garnett - later, the Raptors stole the game, literally, as Patrick Patterson picked off a Deron Williams pass and hit the winner.

"This is a team we could see in the playoffs," uttered multiple voices in both locker rooms and at that point we knew, somehow, some way it was bound to become a reality.

Terrence Ross continued to foreshadow a couple days later, listing the Nets as a preferred playoff opponent. Andray Blatche was not amused.

Meanwhile, the Nets also had Toronto on their wish list as they rested players and lost games to maximize the odds of this matchup coming to fruition. The Raptors were not amused, at least they shouldn't have been.

Then the war of words started.

"[Expletive] Brooklyn," yelled Raptors president, general manager and hype man Masai Ujiri as he addressed thousands of fans outside the Air Canada Centre prior to Saturday's Game 1.

Reluctantly, he delivered a halftime apology, more for the choice of phrasing than the message itself. He's not alone in that sentiment.

"That should represent how we all feel," Dwane Casey said after his team fell victim to the veteran savvy of Brooklyn in the series opener. "I feel the same way and I've got his back," added Greivis Vasquez. "We don't like any of them either. That's how we all feel. All of us."

Nets' coach Jason Kidd said he didn't know who the Raptors' GM was and on Sunday the barbs continued to fly.

"I'm shocked that Bryan Colangelo would say that," Pierce said to the New York Post, informed of what the opposing GM had to say the day before. Reminded that Ujiri replaced Colangelo in the Raptors' front office last summer, as if he were somehow unaware, Pierce responded, "I don't know what you're talking about."

There's genuine hostility here. It's not manufactured, though the media has helped fan the flames.

"Raptors vs. Dinosaurs," read the Toronto Sun cover on game day, poking fun at the age of Pierce and Garnett. "Don't F*** With B'klyn," the New York Daily News shot back 24 hours later.

This has the makings of a competitive, heated series, but rivalry?

"I don't think it's a rivalry at all," Kyle Lowry said following a Sunday afternoon practice session outside of the Raptors' gym on the third level of the ACC.

He's right. Neither team will call this a rivalry and neither should.

Territorially, the Nets and the Knicks are natural adversaries, while the Nets - especially with former Celtics Pierce and Garnett on board - have their sites set on throwing down with the Heat, who they defeated four times this season.

The Raptors? They don't have a rival. That's the unfortunate reality of qualifying for the playoffs six times in 19 seasons. For the bulk of their existence, and especially during a recent five-year postseason layoff, they've been their own worst enemy.

"I don't know," said Casey, "rivalry?"

"I think the whole Atlantic Division's a rivalry, the Eastern Conference. We haven't got to the spot yet where we can say, 'Hey, they're a rival.' New Jersey's been to the Finals before, we haven't. A lot of teams in our division have been there, where we're trying to get to. We've got to earn that."

That's their focus right now, as it should be. Earning it. The Raptors lost Game 1, not because of Ujiri, not because of anything that was said or done off the floor. They lost because they were outplayed by a team that was not fazed by the moment, by their surroundings.

The ACC was electric on Saturday and the sellout crowd did their part, and then some. The building looked and sounded like the "living hell" that Ujiri has called for over and over again. Chants of "Nets suck" and "KG sucks" rang down from the stands throughout the afternoon. Is Toronto a basketball town? It sure seemed like it for three hours but one thing is for certain, it's a sports city and as such, it craves that rivalry. It still boos Vince Carter, it still shows up to jeer the Knicks, a former playoff foe from the Raptors' "glory days". It would like nothing more than to believe that Brooklyn is the enemy, and for at least three more games they will be.

Then what?

It depends on what happens here. Rivalries are made in the playoffs and a long, emotional, drawn-out series, almost regardless of the result, would go a long way in prolonging the underlying hatred between these two clubs.

For now it's being put to the side, at least in the Raptors' locker room, where bouncing back and evening the series is now a top priority. Aside from a brief quip to lead off his media scrum - "I promise you I won't have any profanity" - Casey wanted no part in discussing Ujiri's controversial speech from the day before. Neither did his players.

A war of words may not lose them this series, but it won't win it either. On Sunday the message was clear; a little less conversation, a little more action, please.

"This is about basketball," said the Raptors' coach. "All that stuff has happened."

"All the other stuff, what was said, it's about basketball. It's about screening. It's about finishing plays. It's about executing defensively. I don't want to get off on another tangent."

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