A mayor sucking on a crack pipe or a stripped-down basketball team winning nearly 50 games and pushing toward the second round of the playoffs. Which is more shocking news in Toronto?
It's been a weird year north of the border, but at least Canadians aren't embarrassed by the basketball team. If anything, guard Kyle Lowry could probably win the next election -- unless he was challenged by his backcourt mate, DeMar DeRozan, in which case it might end deadlocked. That gives you an idea how far the Raptors have come since last summer, and how far they're traveling in the NBA playoffs.
The Raptors matter in town. All you need to see is the swell of fans on game nights outside of the Air Canada Center, watching on the big-screen TV in the spring chill. Inside, the Raptors have been busy doing a number on the Nets, taking a 3-2 series lead. If you've ever wondered what it sounds like when $189 million -- the cost of the Nets this season -- falls to the floor, we're probably about to find out.
One more victory against the Nets, and the Raptors will take another unexpected step in a season initially designed to be a rebuilding year. It would also give them a shot at the two-time defending champion Heat -- and, by extension, a higher profile in these playoffs. Suddenly, everyone will know a bit more about an under-the-radar team fighting for appreciation, if not respect.
That's the thing about the Raptors. Even now, we still don't know if they're actually pretty good, or just pretty fortunate to take advantage of the watered-down East. They finished third in a conference where the Bulls essentially played another season without Derrick Rose; the Knicks (50-game winners last season) imploded; and even the Nets underachieved. This is a conference where the Pacers, who finished on top in the regular season, are pretty much considered to be a counterfeit contender. When we look at the Raptors after sizing up the competition, can we believe our eyes or our guts?
Both seem to be at war over Toronto. When new GM Masai Ujiri was hired to fix a mess left behind by Bryan Colangelo, he seemed to think the Raptors were a two-year project, based on his initial decisions. He refused to give coach Dwane Casey a contract extension. He jettisoned Rudy Gay -- a maddening player, yet a scorer who could get 20 points (even if he might need 25 shots). He also traded Andrea Bargnani, a former No. 1 pick in the draft who regressed into a three-point specialist. And he didn't add to the payroll or bring in talent that could crack the rotation.
If this was Ujiri's way of making sure the Raptors were in the hunt for a high draft pick, nobody in Toronto blamed him -- especially since it meant a shot at Andrew Wiggins, the local kid who could change the direction of the franchise.
A funny thing happened, though. The Raptors started to win, and never really stopped. And this process began with Lowry. He was a decent player, nothing special, throughout his career in Memphis and Houston before Toronto. But this season he became a beast: 17.9 points and 7.4 assists, well above his career averages. A solid case can be made for Lowry being the second-best point guard in the East right now after John Wall of the Wizards. He didn't make the All-Star team, yet produced a solid season and is carving up Deron Williams in this series (21.8 points). In the final moments of a tight Game 4, Lowry broke Williams' ankle for a key basket and finished with 36 points.
"He's got a lot of confidence right now," said Williams. "He's tough to guard when he has it going like that."
DeRozan did make the All-Star team -- and, as expected, became a more confident player without Gay around to gobble the ball and the shots. He averaged 22.7 points during the season and sharpened his shot selection (although he's only at 37 percent for the playoffs, which means he's still a work in progress). Every team has someone like DeRozan -- a designated scorer, a player unafraid of the big moment -- and this season was used to groom DeRozan to be that guy for Toronto. He wouldn't have developed if Toronto kept Gay, and it's showing against the Nets, where DeRozan is getting 24 points.
And then there's Casey. When the season began, he had the look of a lame duck, a guy who was auditioning for his next gig, a coach on the clock. Right now? Give him that contract extension. Instead of panicking or packing it in, Casey rolled up the sleeves, motivated his team and took the Raptors out of the Wiggins sweepstakes.
Casey has skillfully managed and directed a team that, outside of Lowry and DeRozan, isn't loaded down with talent. He's making a good case for a contract extension with the Raptors, and with several jobs expected to open this summer, Casey suddenly has choices.
Even at the trade deadline, the Raptors were still entertaining the thought of tearing it down because they were taking offers for Lowry, who's a free agent this summer. But they went for the playoffs. And to paraphrase Drake -- the new part-owner and courtside celebrity -- the Raptors started from the bottom, now they're here.
They may not stay much longer. Toronto hasn't beaten Miami since Chris Bosh left them for the Heat, and this is where you scratch your head about the Raptors' true value. Are they really this good? Without a doubt, they took advantage of the situation in the East. Somebody had to finish with the third-best record, and there weren't many qualified candidates. The Bulls lost Derrick Rose in December. The Nets were in a funk early, and lost Brook Lopez soon after. The Wizards only started to figure it out in the last few months of the season. The Hawks lost Al Horford.
"We're here," said Casey. "We're fighting in the playoffs, somewhere we haven't been before with a young team that makes some mistakes. This is a hell of a place to start learning."
That's all that counts, really. If nothing else, the Raptors are making great strides, and they'll continue this journey without the help of Andrew Wiggins. Or, from the looks of things, the newly-MIA Mayor Ford.