To say we saw this coming—this specifically meaning LeBron James nailing a fifteen-foot floater off the glass to put the Cleveland Cavaliers up 3-0 on the Toronto Raptors—would be hilariously untrue, but the general shape of things as they’ve unfolded: the Raps somewhat shakily handling a middling Wizards team in round one, then getting brutally ended by the Cavs in Eastern Semis? We could have guessed as much. Many did—predicted it, imagined it, dreaded it, etc. The only profoundly surprising thing, which is to say what we like about games even when we’re reasonably sure we know how they’ll end, is how viscerally cruel this conclusion to the Raptors’ season feels. LeBron has thwarted just about everyone he’s met in his career at least a few times, but he’s typically described in terms of the amazement he inspires rather than the devastation he inflicts. That Game 3 buzzer-beater was Jordan-over-Ehlo cold, and a more difficult shot to boot. You’ve seen the video; you understand as well as anyone can, but I have to put this in print because I’ve been mumbling it to myself a bunch over the past twelve hours: he banked it in one-handed from like a twenty-five degree angle.
It’s a hell of a way to have your desires detonated, though I don’t think the Raptors conceive of it that way. They got a poor first half out of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and were down fourteen heading into the fourth quarter. It looked like, following an overtime loss in Game One and an embarrassing blowout in Game 2, the Raps were too beaten down to compete in Cleveland, but then they assembled a brave, impressively tight performance over the final twelve minutes. DeRozan was benched—3-for-12 on the night with a minus-23 rating—but Lowry redeemed himself, attacking the rim and ripping off ten straight points during one stretch. The Cavs let up a bit and Toronto’s defense forced them into some bad shots. O.G. Anunoby hit three fourth quarter threes, including a game-tying twenty-six-footer with just a tick under nine seconds left. The Raptors didn’t give up, and then at the pyrotechnic finish there, when it all went bright and suddenly black, they probably wished that they had.
Fifty-nine wins. Third-best offense, fifth-best defense. The deepest bench in the league. The most efficient season of DeMar DeRozan’s career, another more-than-solid one from Kyle Lowry. It’s not that these achievements don’t mean something. They provided delight that got Toronto fans through the winter and buoyed their dreams in the spring, but the inverse of the old, many-valenced D. Boon line applies here: no hope / see that’s what gives me guts. The Raptors are paralyzed by their own promise, or more precisely, their ever-expanding record of spoiling promise by coming up small in the biggest moments. (You can hear the laptop keys condemnatorily clicking inside Lowry’s head once the playoffs start.) And anyway, when they don’t, LeBron blows them away regardless.
I’ve long contended that it’s better—more admirable, more rewarding in aggregate—to be good and fall against greatness year after year than to embrace strategic sucking. I loathe the increasingly pervasive championship or bust mentality because it’s defeatism masquerading as hyper-rationality. Living is navigating the in-between and discovering what’s fun and edifying about it, knowing the triumphs for which we strive are neither certain nor salvational. Any argument against the fifty-win season is an argument for emotional poverty.
At the same time, sports fandom is not the pursuit of some perfect peace with life’s medium-grade pleasures. That’s just perspective. We tune in to be thrilled and sometimes are, but given that we have a tendency to expect more from our teams than they can deliver, we’re usually disappointed when the season ends—they flat-out stunk, or made some fatal mistake, or, on the simplest level, there aren’t any more games to watch until next year. We make ourselves vulnerable so we can feel good and it almost always backfires eventually. Hopefully, on balance, the exercise is more entertaining than miserable.
Haven’t the Raptors hit a point where it’s going to be hard for anyone involved to feel good going forward? Failure does not, though it might seem like it in the moment it’s burning through you, obliterate everything positive that precedes it, but if you fail enough times in a row, it can infect your psyche in such a way that you can no longer appreciate what you’re doing well in the moment because you’re preoccupied with the future in which you’re going to screw up. Futility sets in. You don’t need to succeed all the time to be happy, but you do need to have some (possibly foolish) hope that maybe you’re going to keep succeeding forever. If you’re writing a novel and you’re sure it’s going to be awful, you’re going to have a dismal time working on it and you almost definitely won’t write up to your potential. Plus anyone who’s interested in your book is going to be pretty discouraged.
That’s about where the Raptors are. If they went into next season whoppingly confident—we’re gonna rip off sixty wins, get the one seed again, and win a title: COUNT ON IT!—we would consider them delusional. Truth and perception are tricky things and we can’t ever be totally sure how much they overlap, but we have a lot of evidence that the Raptors just cannot, for one reason (Kyle and DeMar) or another (LeBron), get it done in the playoffs. They must sense that. Perhaps they believe it.
Where do they go from here? Well, onward toward their foreordained deaths, but there’s no knowable answer past that, no satisfying one either. If this, the Raptors’ fifth consecutive frustratingly truncated playoff run, isn’t the end of this actual collective of players—Masai Ujiri will sort that out this summer—it certainly feels like the end of an aspirational era the city of Toronto has been enjoying and suffering, dreaming and cringing through. After everything that’s happened, after emptying the tank down 0-2 in a Game 3 and losing on an instantly iconic shot from your perennial tormentor, all optimism disintegrates. And once that’s gone, the enterprise of playing, coaching, rooting, whatever becomes a grim enterprise. Work without any reward, pain without any point.