Raptors must beat Nets in Game 2 for real shot to win series

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Dwane Casey repeated the words aloud, as if he was momentarily chewing on them.

“Must win,” the coach said — and then he paused for an instant and verbally danced around the question.

Casey has been coach of the Raptors for three somewhat tumultuous seasons. We still don’t know, although we assume, that he will be here for a fourth season. In that time, he has been charged with all kinds of assignments, not all of them similar: Trying to change the culture of a team that wouldn’t play defence; trying to build a team not knowing what the parts would be; trying to win when ownership wanted to lose; trying to stay employed when the previous general manager was determined to show him the door.

And trying to succeed in a place that has historically been mostly about failure.

Once upon a time, it wasn’t Must Win for Casey. It was occasionally win. It was win once a week. It was try to walk that tightrope between building, development, winning and entertaining — while hoping that those above you believe in you for that day, that week, that moment.

And now there is Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre and a Toronto spring with an entirely different kind of white-out. It is a must-win against the Nets. That is what it is. The Raptors can’t get down 2-0, can’t lose both early home games, can’t do that if they expect to advance to the second round of the NBA playoffs.

Tonight is their season. Tonight is their hope and their opportunity. Tonight, really, is all they have left. Until tomorrow, that is.

Here is the math on first-round NBA playoff series: There have been 88 first-round playoff series since the NBA switched its first round from a best-of-five to a best-of-seven. In that time, three teams have lost the first two games and come back to win the series.

But only two of those teams lost the first two at home. That’s two of 88. That a 2.2% chance of coming back. This coming from a franchise that can’t seem to win a draft pick coin toss, let alone a best-of-seven.

“I wouldn’t say it’s dire,” said Casey, talking about the must-win situation of Game 2. “(If we lose) I wouldn’t say it’s over with.”

He won’t — that’s his job.

I will — that’s my job.

“It’s important we win,” said Casey. “Going down 0-2 is very difficult to come out of. Must win? I don’t think it means we’re done.

And then he changed his view slightly — somewhat, maybe.

“Must win, I guess that’s what it is … there are still games to be played.”

This playoff series, short as it has been, is off to an engaging, fascinating, almost spectacular start, save for the Raptors’ performance in Game 1. The battles between headline writers have been raucous. Paul Pierce’s final quarter and response to the “Dinosaurs” headline, and his error referring to Bryan Colangelo as Raptors GM, and Jason Kidd’s post-game line about not knowing who Masai Ujiri was, and Ujiri’s outdoor expletive and the 24-second clock not working and the ACC being louder and more excited than ever before: It’s remarkable that all of this has happened and only one game has been played, a game in which the Raptors turned the ball over 19 times.

“The first game, we were anxious,” said Greivis Vasquez, the point guard who sometimes plays shooting guard.

“We got that out of our system. Now we’re going to play Raptors basketball. We’re going to defend, we’re going to rebound, we’re going to pass, we’re going to share the ball, we’re going to get our fans involved, and have fun, no pressure. This is basketball and this is fun.

“…(But) I can’t guarantee you guys that we’re going to win.”

Nobody can. And if somebody does, they’re full of something, too. This is too early in a series for any kind of Mark Messier moment. Saying you’re going to win only matters if you go out and do it.

Now they have to go out and do it.

The Raptors were underdogs when this series began and are even more of that now. Vasquez, who considers himself a career underdog, likes that place. Casey, too, although he would prefer being an underdog with a one-game lead.

“We have to go out with an edge and that underdog team and track it that way,” said the coach. “We’re a better team that way. For us to be successful and give ourselves that chance, we have to be that team. We have to figure this out.”


Twitter: @simmonssteve