-- TORONTO -- The stage was set for the Toronto Raptors to prove a point in their first playoff game since 2008, but Saturday's strongest statement was made by their general manager rather than the players in uniform.
Before Toronto's 94-87 loss in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri addressed rowdy Raptors fans in Maple Leafs Square, outside of the atrium of the Air Canada Centre. Given the lengthy playoff drought and perception that the Nets mailed in the last few games of the regular season in order to face Toronto, those in attendance hardly needed riling up. But Ujiri punctuated his closing remarks with, "F--- Brooklyn," adding more drama to a series that felt contentious before it even began.
If the Raptors entered the series with a complex, that's because the sixth-seeded Nets had emerged as the most popular upset pick in the postseason. The Raptors noticed, and this conventional wisdom provided them with plenty of bulletin-board material.
"I think everybody looks at us that way," Toronto big man Chuck Hayes said at Friday's practice. "They're not a believer in our 3-seed."
Hayes added that the reason outsiders didn't expect much was, "There's no TSN [The Sports Network] in the States," and that he got a pregame haircut because his family and friends in California, Texas and Kentucky would be watching on ESPN.
Those in Toronto were confident that youth could beat experience. The headline on the front of the Toronto Sun read, Raptors vs. Dinosaurs." During the third quarter on TSN, Raptors global ambassador Drake joined the broadcast booth. While not speaking as colorfully as Ujiri, he threw his own jab at Brooklyn and its ex-part owner.
"Jay-Z's somewhere eating a fondue plate," he said.
Unfortunately for the sold-out crowd, Toronto didn't take advantage of the moment. The Raptors had to fight back after falling down by 12 in the first quarter. After a corner 3 and a vicious dunk by forward Patrick Patterson early in the fourth, the game was tied 67-67, and it looked like they might be able to pull it off.
Toronto had 11 victories when trailing after three quarters during the regular season, and Raptors coach Dwane Casey had referenced Freddy Krueger pregame to describe his resilient team. Down the stretch, though, the two teams essentially did what was expected.
Toronto held Nets forward Paul Pierce to six points and center Kevin Garnett to just three through the game's first 45 minutes, but the future Hall of Famers came through in the clutch. With Brooklyn up by one point with less than four minutes to go, Pierce assisted on a Garnett jumper. From there, Pierce made a 3, a layup and two jumpers to seal the game.
DeMar DeRozan, Toronto's All-Star, never came close to finding his rhythm. He missed the first eight field goals of his postseason career and finished with 14 points, two rebounds and one assist, shooting 3-for-13 from the field.
Brooklyn overplayed DeRozan, and its array of long, physical defenders pressured him the entire afternoon. Swingman Joe Johnson -- who finished with 24 points, eight rebounds and shot 8-for-13 from the field -- made him work on the other end. "You will see the adjustments on Tuesday," Casey said. "I thought the foul count bothered him a little bit. They did a good job of double-teaming him. Garnett was coming across midpoint into his areas. It was almost like a triple-team. We have to make some adjustments for that in order to free him up better."
DeRozan wasn't the only important Raptor who struggled; big man Amir Johnson didn't make his usual impact and played only 21 minutes. Meanwhile, Toronto's sophomores couldn't have had more different playoff debuts -- swingman Terrence Ross was almost invisible, finishing with three points and four fouls in 16 minutes, while center Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points and a franchise-playoff-record 18 rebounds.
Although Ujiri felt compelled to apologize for his statement at halftime, every Raptors player asked about the incident backed him up. "If he said f--- 'em, we all say f--- 'em," Amir Johnson said, and Casey said he wasn't offended. Despite giving up their home-court advantage, they conveyed only confidence.
"We can still shock the whole league," Vasquez said. "This is our main stage. We've got to just go step by step. Take the loss, though it's going to be hard to swallow, watch film, get better and we'll go from there."
James Herbert's work appears on the TrueHoop Network. Follow him @outsidethenba