All items listed above belong in the world
In which all things are continuous,
And are parts of the original dream which
I am now trying to discover the logic of. This
Is the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness
May be converted into the future tense
—Robert Penn Warren, “I Am Dreaming of a White Christmas: The Natural History of a Vision”
Winds change. Something goes sour in San Antonio and Kawhi Leonard becomes available. Masai Ujiri snaps him up, if only for a short-term arrangement. LeBron James exhausts the mine in Cleveland and goes west. The Sixers go all in on mismatched talent and never totally figure it out. The Celtics fall apart in seven different ways. Giannis isn’t quite ready; Eric Bledsoe shoots a percentage that starts with a two. Kyle Lowry, always managing a crisis, goes for 19, 5, and 5 in the biggest series of his life. After the final buzzer sounds he runs over to his kids, scoops them up, kisses his wife. The crowd chants his name.
Basketball itself is pretty legible, for the most part. Ridiculous things can and do happen, but the actions and consequences are right there on the court: the defender stumbles and the guard blows by them, the big man blows a rotation and the other team gets a dunk. There occasionally seems to be something mysterious at work, some hardwood god particle insinuating itself into spaces of the game we can’t see. We call that team chemistry, or home court advantage, or the weight of the moment, or dumb luck. In the end, the ball goes through the hoop or it doesn’t, and no matter how explicable that is, we agree on that fact. (This is notably better than we do in, say, our politics or our culture.)
What we construct from the facts are as varied as our vantage points, but they are usually more artifice than substance. This is because empiricism has its limits—you can only watch so many pick and roll coverage breakdowns before what’s supposed to be a funtime hobby starts to feel like math class—and because there’s a lot beyond actual outcomes that we can’t wrap our arms around. The why? of this stuff gets murky. Fred VanVleet plays some of the worst ball of his career for 15 games, then with the birth of his son transforms into a dream Jeff Hornacek once had about being cooler. What is there to make sense of? The loud noise you make from the seat of your couch as Fred Sr. tosses in another triple probably sums it up more aptly than any analysis can.
Let’s try zooming out. Here’s the Toronto Raptors’ arc:
2013-14: 48 wins, lost in the first round to the Nets (seven games)
2014-15: 49 wins, lost in the first round to the Wizards (sweep)
2015-16: 56 wins, lost in the Conference Finals to the Cavs (six games)
2016-17: 51 wins, lost in the second round to the Cavs (sweep)
2017-18: 59 wins, lost in the second round to the Cavs (sweep)
It’s hard to overstate the velocity with which LeBron deposited them into a locker these last three years, and it is slightly overstated how poor DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were throughout those series. (The short answer is DeMar failed slightly more consistently than Kyle.) Something had to change, and fortunately for the Raps, a big factor that was beyond their control did when LeBron joined the Lakers. They also swapped DeMar for Kawhi, who’s scoring nearly 32 points per game on better than 50 percent shooting and just got through playing all-world defense on Giannis, effectively and efficiently winning the argument that he’s the best player in the sport by means of direct comparison. The Raptors have been good for a long while; now they’re good plus the contributions of a two-way force of nature who can’t necessarily create a great shot on every possession but usually makes it anyway.
Is this the culmination of a grand vision? No, not really. It’s not as if Masai Ujiri set out six years ago to have some satisfying regular seasons, some disappointing playoff losses, and then trade for an inscrutably disgruntled mega-star at the exact moment it looked about time to reset the squad. The plan comes together only in hindsight, and anyway, this could all dematerialize with a sweep at the hands of the Warriors and Kawhi leaving for Los Angeles in the summer. That would mark the start of the Pascal Siakam era, and nobody knows what that would look like.
So to what extent does the past inform the present? If you look to Kyle Lowry, who has been with the Raptors for seven seasons, you might argue that the effect of accumulating time, more than anything else, adds emotional heft to the moment. All the falling short doesn’t make the eventual breakthrough possible, but it does deepen the feeling of breaking through.
Given that sports are in the feelings transmission business, that is all that matters. We strive to explain the Raptors’ Finals run because it’s a dense question to puzzle over and we’ve got time to kill. But there is something else to do, less active but no less worthy: appreciating the moment, and everything that’s come before, not divining a straight line through it but drinking in the beauty and ugliness of the broader pastiche.
There was that time, and that time, and that time, and here we are now, with the Raptors right where we expected them to be, or where we wouldn’t have guessed but are thrilled to have them regardless. It’s okay to be a little romantic about this. If you’re a Toronto fan, and the old wounds suddenly feel irrelevant, or even make you hopeful, you don’t need anything else. You’ve discovered the secret. No matter which way this thing breaks, what you’ve been waiting for has already arrived.