The mystery of the Raptors’ crushing streak of Game 1 defeats

TORONTO — April 18, 2015, was a glorious early-spring day in downtown Toronto, sunny and reasonably warm. Thousands of Toronto Raptors fans had packed into Maple Leaf Square to watch a massive screen on the side of Air Canada Centre, the fulfillment of an urban planner’s dream.

Just after noon, Masai Ujiri stepped onto a temporary stage wearing one of his trademark form-fitting dark suits and was handed a live microphone. The Raptors’ general manager and team executives were anxious to show off the admirable scene with a special guest who’d flown in for the kickoff of the playoffs, NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

In the elevator on the way, Silver joked about when Ujiri had gotten up on the same stage a year before and screamed “F— Brooklyn” to fans’ joy just before the Raptors opened the playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets. But the Nets won the game, with Paul Pierce making a jumper to ice it, and Silver fined Ujiri $25,000 for his language.

They all laughed at the memory. This time, of course, everyone would behave and the improved Raptors were going to handle the Washington Wizards in Game 1. Who cared that Pierce, now with the Wizards, had waved off the Raptors by saying they didn’t have the “it” factor? Look at the scene; this was “it.”

“I know everyone wants me to say something about Paul Pierce,” Ujiri howled. “Here’s what I’m going to say.”

Standing nearby, Silver stiffened.

“We don’t give a s— about ‘it’,” Ujiri finished before dropping the mic.

The crowd roared outside. The fans inside, after hearing about it and seeing it on social media, did, too. Silver shook his head — he’d soon fine Ujiri and the Raptors $60,000 — but the city oozed with energy as it focused on supporting its team.

Then, stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 8-for-30, and the Raptors lost to the Wizards by seven points. Pierce slammed them again, scoring 20 points.

“The atmosphere in Toronto for playoff games is incredible; what you see on TV doesn’t do it justice,” Pierce said, looking back. “You have to be there to feel it.

“But you know, nobody respected the Raptors, even on their home court. If you got the Raptors in the playoffs, it was nothing to fear. It was a matchup I always wanted.”

There it is. Harsh and plain. And the losses keep happening.

Game 1 has been a demon the Raptors cannot shake. It has gone from nuisance to unexplainable to unacceptable. The Raptors’ Game 1 losing streak is at 10. More confounding is they’re 0-6 at home. Six Game 1 defeats in front of that relentless crowd when they have had the higher seed and the alleged advantage.

In their history, the Raptors are a depressing 1-12 in Game 1s. But the current core that has been in Toronto since it made its first appearance in six years in 2014 — Lowry, DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and coach Dwane Casey — are 0-7 in Game 1s. Five of them have taken place in their beloved building. And it haunts them.

“I can’t explain it. Actually, it’s ridiculous,” Lowry said.

“Look, we’ve been trash in these Game 1s, and I don’t have a clue why. I’ve thought about it,” DeRozan said.

“I don’t know, man. And it gets in your head, and every series it got worse,” said DeMarre Carroll, a former Raptor who experienced five Game 1 losses in his tenure before being traded to the Nets last summer.

“It sounds trite, I know, but to give up your home-court advantage year after year is disappointing,” Casey said.

“That’s a pretty interesting stat, isn’t it?” Pierce said.

It must be said that three times in the past two seasons, the Raptors have recovered from Game 1 losses to win the series. But the added stress seemed to affect them in the next round.

The Raptors have just finished the greatest regular season in their history, winning the No. 1 seed and 59 games. They have built a deep and flexible roster that can withstand injuries, bend to an opponent’s strengths and reduce the burden to keep their stars fresher for the postseason. They will have Game 1 at home as long as they’re alive in the East playoffs.

And they will carry the weight of the CN Tower on their backs when they host the Wizards on Saturday to try to end this splitting headache.

“We have to take advantage. We have to,” Lowry said. “Game 1 will be the most important game for us. We haven’t talked about it much in the past, but this year it’s going to be an emphasis, at least, my personal emphasis.”

The history of these games reads like a horror script.

  • Back in 2002, the team managed just 63 points and shot 29 percent in Game 1 against Detroit.

  • In 2006, the No. 3-seed Raptors were favored against the New Jersey Nets. It was a “red out,” and all fans were given red T-shirts for the effect. But no one told the Nets, who wore their red alternate road jerseys so they looked and felt like the home team. Played like it, too. They won Game 1 and the series.

  • In 2016, Lowry made a miraculous shot at the buzzer from just inside half court to force overtime against the Miami Heat in Game 1 at home. Were there no bars in front of all the rows in the upper deck, fans might’ve toppled onto the court. The scene in Maple Leaf Square — aka Jurassic Park in the playoffs — resembled a mosh pit.

    The Heat then dominated overtime and won.

  • Then there were the Pierce years, highlighted by a dagger jumper in Game 1 in 2014 in which the Nets’ leader went skipping down the court yelling, “That’s why they got me here.”

    “They got tight,” Pierce said. “You could feel it.”

There have been plenty of attempts at unifying theories over the years. One popular one is that the Raptors are thrown off by early games. The NBA has frequently given Toronto the first playoff game, 12:30 p.m. on the first Saturday of the playoffs. It happened in 2006, 2014, 2015 and 2016. Last season, when they lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1, it took place at 5:30 p.m. after the Raptors privately lobbied the league to give them mercy from the early game. But it was still at an unorthodox time.

“It’s just crushing when you lose at home in Game 1,” said Raptors season-ticket holder Jamie Schacter, who has owned seats in the first row since 1995. “When we get the early game, we cringe. Basketball players, and the Raptors especially, it seems, play better at night.”

On Saturday, the Raptors will have to deal with yet another 5:30 p.m. start.

But it may be simpler than that. Lowry and DeRozan have had some miserable Game 1s. In the 2014 loss to Brooklyn, they combined to shoot 11-of-31. They were worse the next season against Washington. When Lowry hit the miracle shot against Miami in 2016, it was a part of a 3-of-13 shooting night. In a 2016 Game 1 loss to the Indiana Pacers, Lowry and DeRozan were 8-of-32 from the field. In the 2016 conference finals against Cleveland in Game 1, Lowry was 4-of-14. Last season in their Game 1 loss to the Bucks, Lowry was 2-for-11. In Game 1 against the Cavs in Cleveland in 2017, DeRozan’s plus/minus was minus-32.

“It’s a big letdown when they’ve lost those games; from a fan’s perspective, it sucks,” said 15-year courtside ticket holder Bruce Croxon, an investor who has been featured on several popular Canadian TV shows and is one of the Raptors’ famous fans.

“The pressure on them in that environment has gotten pretty intense. They’re on the journey, and we’re hoping this is the year they combine it all together.”

Croxon advocates for everyone to try to stay calmer, to not make as big of a deal about the first game in the hopes it will play out more like the 41 regular-season games in Toronto, where the Raptors were 37-7 — a home record that tied for first in the league. His fellow premium season-ticket holder Schacter disagrees and instead has his own theory.

“It annoys me that fans don’t come back to their seats at the start of the third quarter and it’s dead in the building,” he said. “The Raptors are notorious for coming out slow in the second half. I’ve been talking about this for years.”

In the end, there is no magic button to push. The Raptors have tried plenty of things to bury this curse, looking both inward and outward. They’ve altered routines, they’ve tried to ignore it and tried to address it. It will just be there until it’s gone.

In this season, where they feel they have their best chance ever to reach the Finals, they realize that getting rid of this topic altogether would really help the cause.

“It’s part of our experience here, it’s something we carry with us,” DeRozan said. “It’s something I want to get out of the way for good.”

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