The Raptors are playing Game 1 early, and that's okay
The NBA playoffs start Saturday, bringing with it two months of cool moments, competition and coloured t-shirts. I've already made obligations to stay up past my bedtime (tee hee!) to watch the games out west, and I've already implicitly burned obligations to do anything that doesn't involve sitting in front of the TV.
It's obviously special, too, to have the Raptors in the running for the third straight year. After a franchise-best 56 wins (and the best winning percentage ever for any Toronto pro team), Raptors fans can finally feel a little at ease with the prospects of winning a first round series. They have a good draw against the Indiana Pacers, they have a sustainable defensive strategy and the roster to carry it out, and there's generally less holes in the boat compared to last year. If they finally play to their potential in the post-season, this team should be good enough to take a game or two from Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals. This would both break new ground for Raptors postseason play and shatter expectations set at the beginning of the year.
There's never been more reason to be excited, yet you can't help but notice that insecurity abounds. Last night, the playoff schedule was released, giving Toronto the playoff opener at 12:30 EST on Saturday for the third straight year. This is the party-starter, sure. It's also earlier than all but a handful of NBA games played, and can theoretically mess with a team's preparedness and have low viewership for TV audiences.
That said, this is an unfavourable time slot in one game - possibly the most meaningless game of the playoff schedule. A first round Game 1 is rarely remembered in the annals of history. We get the warm fuzzies from seeing the fans outside, be reminded of the intensity of playoff basketball, and then we settle in for the long haul. (And, compared to other professional sports, it is stupidly long.)
Raptors fans, though -- god bless them -- are upset. I've seen a few different arguments, so let's go through my perspective on each of them.
Starting a game early is a competitive disadvantage
This one is easy. Last time I checked, the Raptors and Pacers are playing at the same time. In fact, 12:30 in Toronto is 11:30 in Indianapolis -- so if anything, the competitive advantage would be for the Raps.
It's also morning in Winnipeg, where I'm still safely in the "first coffee of the weekend" part of the day. You can't convince me that the NBA playoffs and the first coffee of the day is a bad combination. It's beautiful.
The NBA hates Toronto
The NBA does not hate Toronto. The Raptors are an exemplary franchise from an organizational level. They've built a 55+ win team through the draft, free agency, and development both in the States and abroad. Building on Bryan Colangelo's core, Masai Ujiri has worked the system and come out with a success story. There's simply no argument to be made here. If Adam Silver wanted to railroad a team by scheduling them early, he'd have Houston playing at 9:30 on the west coast -- not Toronto.
American television hates Toronto
Also not true, for two reasons.
First, dollars and cents. ESPN and Turner Sports paid an impossible sum of money for the rights to broadcast these games, and to get investment on that return, they need ad buys. To get ad buys, they need guaranteed eyeballs. American consumer eyeballs. ESPN is in Connecticut, Turner Sports is in Atlanta, and neither of those places benefit much from an extra buck or two. As for Canadian television? TSN and Sportsnet have simulcasts, but they're worth peanuts compared to the contract negotiated between the American networks and the NBA. Also, the Canadian networks have some guarantee that Raptors fans will watch, regardless of time of day. Across the border, the Raptors are just one of 16 teams - and frankly, both they and their opponent are not marquee teams for promotion.
Second reason: there is value in showcasing Toronto as the first playoff game. For the last two years, the scene outside Air Canada Centre has been a great boon for the NBA. Watch the video above and tell me that wouldn't impact decision-making. It gives both ESPN and the NBA the ability to start a game before noon and open a broadcast with rabid fans. It looks good on both sides.
The NBA family as a whole doesn't care about the Raptors
This one is silly, quite frankly. The Raptors are a well-regarded team in the NBA and American media, albeit with the same caveat that we've isolated from covering the team -- they need to prove their worth in the postseason. If Toronto moves on to the second round (and they should), they'll get a whole new set of eyeballs and a level of respect. Whether that matters to you is your personal choice, but it's the truth. The Raptors simply need to win a series to vault themselves on the ol' respect ladder.
Also, in the big picture, why do we care so much what the NBA and American media may or may not think of us? Even if this decision wasn't made with complete logic (it was), why are we so quick to play the victim? The end goal for being a Raptors fan should be for the team to win games, not to win air time out of Scott Van Pelt's lungs. People continue to dwell on "respect" when they talk about the Raptors and they deserve their fair share for what they've accomplished. They'll get more when they continue to win.
That journey, if you want to call it that, begins with a Game 1 at 12:30 eastern time. Even though the Raptors won 56 games this year, they're starting their playoff schedule in the early time slot. It's not a conspiracy, it's a perfectly logical decision. We need to be okay with it.