Are the Raptors in a fair fight against the Nets?

Dustin Parkes
Tom Szczerbowski / USA TODAY

The numbers aren’t all that bad. The Toronto Raptors had four more personal fouls and only two fewer free throw attempts than the Brooklyn Nets in their 94-87 loss in the first game of their first round playoff series. That’s hardly an outrageous difference.

However, zero foul calls on the Nets in the fourth quarter remains as difficult to accept for Raptors fans as it was easy to anticipate. After all, this is a team that’s up against the whole world.

Or so, they’ve been led to believe.

Mere days after the Raptors introduced a promotional video signaling the beginning stages of a long promised rebrand with its defiant new “We The North” catchphrase, General Manager Masai Ujiri finished a rallying speech to thousands of fans assembled outside of the arena where the franchise was about to play their first playoff game since 2007 by saying, “F--- Brooklyn!

Despite a half-time apology from Ujiri, and — initially — only a formal warning from the league, NBA commissioner Adam Silver reconsidered the public cursing and levied a $25,000 fine against the GM on Monday. It was the very definition of a nominal punishment, and one that last season’s executive of the year will gladly accept.

In the aftermath, more than one Toronto columnist has suggested that what seemed like an impromptu slip of the tongue was more likely planned in advance. Certainly, it’s more than serendipity that the head of the franchise would set his team apart with such irreverence at a time that coincides with an aggressive new branding campaign.

The Raptors, already uniquely situated as Canada’s only NBA franchise, appear ready to capitalize on this season’s unexpected success by attempting to create an “us against them” mentality among its organization and supporters. Given the lack of foul calls, it’s an easy sell.

A fine from the league only serves to enhance the seemingly abundant obstacles being put in the team’s path. Aligning quite nicely with this perspective on Tuesday was disgraced former NBA official Tim Donaghy speaking on Toronto sports radio.

A veteran referee of  772 regular season games and 20 playoff games, Donaghy was sentenced to 15 months in jail for his participation in an NBA gambling scandal in which he was accused of shaving points off of games on which he gambled and officiated.

The divisive figure explained to host Jeff Blair how the league can easily influence the outcome of playoff games.

What they do is they actually send in a representative from the league office to sit down with the referees at an 11:00 o’clock meeting in the morning and go over game film. They will show the referees what they want called and what they want them to concentrate on, what they feel needs to be called or let go in a series to avoid any problems.

With that you’d always have a situation in which you’d leave that room and you’d say to yourself one team is at an advantage or a disadvantage.  In this situation … Brooklyn would definitely be put at an advantage.

Donaghy went on to suggest that the league would stand to benefit more from the Nets going on to meet the Miami Heat in a later round, as opposed to the Raptors, who don’t possess the same national appeal. Put simply, a Brooklyn and Miami matchup represents a greater potential revenue source, and so the league might ask for certain things that Toronto typically does to be called, while also requesting for certain things the Nets typically do to be left alone.

As Donaghy further explained, there’s a clear and conflicting motivation for the referees to do as the league wishes.

As a referee you have to understand as you advance from round one to round two to round three, [you] get paid an enormous amount of money as you advance in rounds. And you’re being graded every game you officiate, and the league wants you to call certain things and you’re going to be graded based on those things they want you to call.

While the cynical among us might look to Ujiri’s public cursing as little more than a stunt to reinforce the core values of a new brand — a nice tie-in for the team’s new commercial — there could be real fire associated with the smoke that’s seemingly signalling an us-against-the-world situation.

However, if you’re willing to believe the league is conspiring against the Toronto franchise for the sake of ensuring a Nets/Heat playoff meeting, you can’t ignore the source of such hearsay, and the media outlet amplifying it. Donaghy’s interview was broadcast on Rogers Sportsnet Radio, a station owned by the very same conglomerate that’s not only part owner of the Raptors, but also one of the team’s main regional television broadcasters. No one is more vested in the rebranding of the franchise than Rogers, and no one is more likely to play a role in ensuring its success.

No matter which conspiracy theory you lend your credence, Raptors fans end up being the mark in a confidence game. They’re either spurned by an attention hungry league hell bent on creating nationally appealing marquee playoff matchups, or they’re the pawns in the manipulation of Machiavellian management spoon feeding them an unnourishing pablum they want to believe is healthy.

It seems the only respite for Toronto fans is to watch a team that has exceeded expectations all season long, and hope they continue to do so no matter what the league wants or the organization wants you to believe.