Despite No. 1 seed, Raptors are still playing for legitimacy
Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The crushing weight of history and insecurity will descend on the Toronto Raptors shortly after tipoff in their late-afternoon playoff start.

The regular season was a rousing success. The Raptors responded strongly to team president Masai Ujiri's "culture reset" edict and won 59 games to capture the franchise's first No. 1 seed. The results speak for themselves: the Raps hold the NBA's second-best record, even ahead of the dynastic Golden State Warriors.

But nobody is quite ready to give them their due credit - and for good reason. Dominating games between October and March was never this team's problem - it's April and May that give the Raptors fits. And while these new heights are, strictly speaking, higher than the franchise has ever reached, there's still a battle with history they've yet to overcome.

The Raptors have long been looked at as inferior, and that struggle for legitimacy will be the biggest challenge in their playoff run.

At some point, it must become tiring to repeat the same promise that these Raptors aren't the same, but they need to show it before anyone believes it.

That last bit of goodwill was exhausted last season, when Ujiri made an out-of-character move to shuffle his roster at the trade deadline, acquiring P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka. In one fell swoop, the Raptors supposedly fixed their three biggest problems: filling perpetually vacant forward spots, adding defensive toughness, and adding veteran voices to the room.

The result was the same: the Cleveland Cavaliers swept them in four games while LeBron James took time to demoralize the franchise by pretending to sip beer and brazenly spinning the ball in Ibaka's face during blowouts.

It represented a step back from 2016, when the Raptors put together their most successful playoff run, including taking two games off the eventual champions. Buoyed by Bismack Biyombo's immutable swagger, the Raptors improbably evened the series with two home wins.

James infamously declared that being tied was hardly an "adverse situation" and proceeded to close out the series with two dominant showings the Cavaliers won by a combined 64 points.

Having said all that, these Raptors are different.

DeRozan has grown by leaps and bounds, they no longer live and die by Lowry's fleeting jump shot, they're fully healthy for once, they shoot more threes, they share the ball better, they're deeper than ever, and they've closed the talent gap between themselves and Cleveland.

But the general expectation is they'll fall once again at the feet of the King, and if that is indeed their fate, then how are these Raptors any different? And if they do fall short after swearing up and down that they've changed, will anyone believe them ever again?

The feeling of illegitimacy is rooted deeper than playoff failures, they trace back to the larger struggles encountered by the only organization outside the United States.

Before there were even enough playoff games to build up a reputation for choking, the overarching narrative for the purple dinosaur franchise was that nobody wanted to be there.

Star players eagerly fled Toronto at the first available opportunity. Vince Carter left, Chris Bosh left, Tracy McGrady left, even Damon Stoudamire left. Whether it was for less snow or more cable channels, anyone worth watching made the same migration south of the border.

That trend ended only after Ujiri ushered in an era of sober foresight and innovative management. He delivered five-straight playoff runs and a handful of division banners, and more importantly, Ujiri was able to coax long-term commitments out of DeRozan and Lowry to serve as the foundation for this era of Raptors basketball.

But it would be a stretch to claim the Raptors have escaped their reputation, not when they have to spend extra for every free agent. Paying over $16 million a year to DeMarre Carroll or nearly $20 million to Ibaka isn't so much a triumph of organizational credibility so much as simple economics.

The more telling case is Tucker's, who turned down more money and security from the Raptors for a chance to compete with the Houston Rockets. Tucker's decision was made out of trust in the Rockets, trust which the Raptors have yet to earn.

Toronto's insecurity was so palpable and so crucial to its identity that it was crystalized into a marketing slogan - a move mastered by their global ambassador. The underlying subtext of "We The North" is that the Raptors are embracing what makes them different, which is inherently an admission that they are indeed different. It's not the States and it's not for everyone.

A catchy slogan, however, doesn't distance oneself from history, not when there are two decades of disappointment and irrelevancy weighing over every game. It becomes ingrained in the collective franchise and fanbase identity, and it manifests in sensitive retorts toward everything from national TV timeslots, to borderline no-call calls, and to petty arguments with Paul Pierce over something as nebulous as "having it."

It's not fair to ask this Raptors team to defeat the demons of the past, but that's their challenge when they take the court Saturday.

Winning their first Game 1 since 2001 will be a huge step in the right direction. That inexplicable spell of futility is one of several boogeymen that have historically haunted the franchise, and erasing the mark will be a monkey off their back from which they can draw confidence, much like in 2016 when winning their first seven-game series launched a trip to the conference finals.

Their revamped offense also needs to hold up under scrutiny and not devolve into a string of mindless isolation plays as it has previously. They spent all season proving to themselves that they're most successful when they move and share the ball to create open layups and catch-and-shoot threes while playing up-tempo. That needs to extend into the playoffs.

Much of that falls on the shoulders of Lowry and DeRozan, who wear reputations for unraveling. DeRozan's improvements as a playmaker should make him harder to trap, while Lowry is finally injury free and no longer so vital to Toronto's success that poor shooting isn't necessarily fatal. They can't afford to disappear for entire games, like last year when DeRozan had eight points on just free throws, or when Lowry was outscored by Matthew Dellavedova. There are no excuses left.

They need to act like a No. 1 seed and win the first round in convincing fashion. The Washington Wizards will have the mental advantage knowing they swept the Raptors in 2015, but they're also rife with dysfunction after dropping nine of their last 12 games to plummet to the eighth seed.

And finally, the Raptors need to throw an actual scare into James. This is the weakest version of the Cavs and the strongest Raps side over this three-year run, which makes it a golden opportunity for an upset. At the minimum, the Raptors need to take advantage of Cleveland's porous defense and steal a couple games, while not cowering to James' omnipresent will.

Accomplish those benchmarks, and decade-old narratives surrounding the Raptors might change. But for now, the struggle for legitimacy is alive and well, just as always.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

Despite No. 1 seed, Raptors are still playing for legitimacy
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