Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.
TORONTO - The Raptors and their fans convinced themselves after Game 1 that everyone south of the border does not want them around any longer than absolutely necessary.
It's a conspiracy theory with some kernels of truth -- just not as many kernels as folks here would like to believe.
Regardless, thanks to a botched opportunity by the Nets Tuesday night, the rest of the NBA and the U.S.-based TV networks now are stuck with the Raptors for a bit longer, at least for a return trip by the team in black for Game 5 next week.
The home team earned that the hard way with a 100-95 victory at Air Canada Centre in the latest in a series of close battles between the teams, who now are tied at 1 game apiece in their first-round playoff series.
Afterward, Canadian reporters peppered the victorious players with questions about not only the game itself, but about what the result meant to how the perennially put-upon Raptors are perceived.
"We want to show the NBA we are a good team," said DeMar DeRozan, who led the Raptors' first playoff victory in six years with 30 points and was a force the Nets could not stop in the fourth quarter.
Maybe all this -- not to mention the vulgar shot at Brooklyn from the Raptors' general manager Saturday -- is a sign the Nets' move across the rivers finally has recast them as big-market bullies rather than the underdog, Raptors-style afterthoughts they were in Jersey.
It was clear that is how many Canadians viewed them during a three-day debate over the officiating in Game 1 that drew in everyone from Raptors coach Dwane Casey to fans to journalists to TSN analyst Jack Armstrong, who stoked some of the ill will with his commentary during that game.
(Armstrong grew up in Brooklyn, by the way, and said he is "absolutely thrilled" his home borough has its own team at last, and that he will work Game 3 there Friday.)
Cathal Kelly, a columnist for the Globe and Mail, wrote of the Raptors in Tuesday's newspaper that "No one outside Canada wants them to win."
That is a fair point in TV ratings terms; a second-round matchup featuring the Nets and Heat has a far juicier ring to it than the alternative. But there is a big step from that to the conspiracy theories rampant across a nation.
None of that matters for now, not after the Raptors won a game in which the Nets were called for fouls early and often, for a total of 26 to Toronto's 21, plus a couple of defensive three-second calls and a technical foul.
Paul Pierce, the star of Game 1, was called for two fouls in the first four minutes -- and five overall -- and managed only seven points in 25 minutes while shooting 2-for-11, including a miss on an open three-point shot that would have given the Nets a one-point lead with 25 seconds left.
Afterward, no one was asking or answering questions about officials or dark motives, but that sort of thing never is far away when it comes to the NBA and how its playoff series unfold.
One or two mysterious whistles at Flatbush and Atlantic Friday night and we'll be back to the sort of thing Kelly wrote Tuesday:
"The refs aren't crooked, but they're human. They know how things work. They know what's good for the brand. If they can help without crossing an internal ethical line, history has proven they will."
The Nets mostly were bemused by the stir. "We understand that this is the playoffs," Pierce said before the game. "A lot of calls may not go your way. We understand that as veterans. You have to be able to play through it."
The Raptors eventually did that in Game 2 and now are back in the series, while the Nets blew a chance to take control and perhaps even sweep at home and give the NBA what Torontonians believe it has wanted all along.