DeMar DeRozan was talking about cars.
“You ever had an old Regal?,” he asked, rhetorically, to a room full of reporters.
A Buick Regal, he meant. An old clunker. A beater. The kind of car that has to cough and belch for a bit before the engine comes to life.
The Raptors guard continued the analogy about the old Regal, after it has had some time to get from a rattle to something resembling a purr: “Once you get going, then it can feel like a 2016 Lexus?,” he said. “That’s just us.”
The Toronto Raptors have coughed and belched off the start, as they tend to do. They cannot, for the life of them, win the first game of a playoff series, having now dropped the opener in nine consecutive first-round series with Saturday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. They generally do not start games well, either, having trailed after the first half-dozen minutes of a game far more often than they are ahead over the last two seasons.
It is a problem that has plagued this team when it is at full strength, and when DeMar DeRozan was hurt last year and when Kyle Lowry was out this year. It was an issue when the starting lineup included Luis Scola, and then when it included Patrick Patterson and now that it has Serge Ibaka.
It is, as coach Dwane Casey said on Monday, “our biggest mystery.”
Not that he hasn’t tried to solve it.
“We’ve done everything,” he said. “We’ve looked at the numbers, statistics, matchups, rotations, groups that were in there …,” and the coach trailed off a little, in that way that you sort of throw up your hands when you’ve looked and looked at the evidence and haven’t found any kind of useful revelation.
Like, if they could identify the actual problem, they would have fixed it by now.
“It’s in our DNA,” he said. “Slow starts and hard finishes.”
For Serge Ibaka, who has been here for only two months, it’s just as much of a mystery.
“I don’t know why,” he said of Toronto’s poor early play.
“For whatever reason, we are better with our backs against the wall,” Casey said Monday. Toronto came back to win more games in which they were trailing by double digits than any other team in the NBA this season, a statistic that DeRozan cited on Monday when he wasn’t holding forth on old clunkers. This is, admittedly, a fact about which the Raptors can only be somewhat proud. The best teams in the league — Golden State, San Antonio — don’t have as many big comeback wins as Toronto simply because they do not fall behind by many points very often.
But Casey was correct when he noted that, at the least, the Raptors’ ability to come back says something about rising to the challenge. It’s true within games, and it’s true in series, where the Raptors had every opportunity to fold after losing the opener last year to Indiana and then to Miami, and after getting blown out in the opening two games in Cleveland. Then managed to make good fights out of all of them, winning a couple of series along the way. If anything, it has been success that has been Toronto’s biggest foe in the playoffs: Any time they started asserting themselves last year, they gave the edge right back with another puzzling loss.
So, perhaps it is for the best that the team has no edge left to concede. They had their chance to make this series easy, but that opportunity is past. It’s a fight now. Which is kind of their thing.