In 2015, Paul Pierce accused the Toronto Raptors of lacking the indefinable thing that makes good teams greater than the sum of their parts.
“I don’t feel they have the ‘it’ that makes you worried,” Pierce said.
Toronto basketball fans pretended outrage, but knew in their hearts Pierce was right.
Under attack by a lippy geriatric, the Toronto Raptors didn’t swing back. They collectively shrugged their shoulders – “We have to find out what ‘it’ is,” coach Dwane Casey said – and went limp. Pierce’s Washington Wizards won in a sweep.
Three years later, a great deal about this team has changed. Best record in the East, couple of regular all-stars, a new-new plan and depth out the wazoo.
But Pierce is still right.
This team doesn’t have ‘it’. This team is the opposite of whatever ‘it’ is. The team should set up a separate arm of the scouting department to scour the earth for ‘it’ this off-season.
This inexplicable and fundamental lack is typified by the marvellously creative ways in which the Raptors choose to lose.
In Game 1, they tripped over the finish line. In Game 2, they enjoyed a 20-minute break at halftime. Unfortunately, halftime is 15 minutes long.
The Cleveland Cavaliers took a close game, added an 8-0 run to begin the third quarter, and then peeled away from Toronto.
This wasn’t Corvette-from-a-minivan-type peeling away. This was the Space-Shuttle-from-a-Bixi-bike-type peeling.
By the final few minutes, Air Canada Centre was doing an endless moment’s silence for another lost postseason and the Cavaliers were no longer bothering to play defence. It ended 128-110.
Mid-game, Casey was asked what went wrong in the third quarter.
“We got discombobulated,” he said.
No, they didn’t. They returned to their historic playoff standard – which means they got combobulated.
Cleveland did a lot of things well. Kevin Love awoke from his postseason slumbers. A slew of forwards ran Serge Ibaka around the court like they were taking him for a walk. Kendrick Perkins didn’t kill anyone.
But the problem – as ever - was LeBron James. He decided to try. In response, the Raptors decided to lie down and let James run them over.
James can make good teams look bad, but this wasn’t that. This was him making shots for fun while the other side turtles.
James finished with 43 points on 68-per-cent shooting. Most pros couldn’t hit those totals if they played on horseback.
His dominance was so total that the ESPN game crew at one point signed off from “LeBronto.” Which is mean, unneighbourly and quite right.
From the Toronto perspective, this is sad on a bunch of levels.
For a little while there, this was shaping up as one of those Laguna Beach-type series the NBA specializes in – one where the extracurriculars are more interesting than the games. Toronto’s never had one of those.
Drake got in a fight (bad) and insulted capri pants (good). James started doing interviews topless. LeBron hates Drake (maybe) and NBA commissioner Adam Silver loves them both equally, like the tolerant father he is. The league’s top man made a point of going over mid-game to Canada’s taller Spike Lee on Thursday and shaking hands. It was basketball’s Yalta moment.
But then Toronto began Toronto-ing and all that fun stuff goes out the window. There’s nothing interesting about watching one team get steamrolled by another. Drake can go on tour now. His work is done for the season.
Before last night, 26 teams had gone up 2-0 on the road to begin an NBA playoff series. You don’t need to know how that statistic ends, right?
Because barring acts of God (or James stepping on a banana peel on his way into the alligator enclosure at the Cleveland zoo) this thing is over. The Raptors are playing for pride now. That seems to be the only scenario that energizes them – making a bad thing look a little less bad in hindsight.
If so, it’s not working any more. This team isn’t turning into a less glamourous L.A. Clippers – all the talent in the world and absolutely nothing to show for it.
Ahead of the game, Casey was asked to address the same ol’, same ol’ness of the Raptors flopping to start a series.
“If we want to be historians, we’re in the wrong business,” Casey said.
That is right. Because historians tend not to repeat history.
Afterward, Casey wasn’t even pretending that this is likely any more.
“We have to go in [to Cleveland] and play for pride,” Casey said.
Once the word “pride” comes into it, you know it’s over.
For at least four more days, the Raptors will continue twitching. It’s not yet time to perform the autopsy, but the body is on the gurney.
They may still flatter to deceive by stealing a couple of games en route to inevitable defeat (as they did two years ago). And – the boilerplate sportswriter insurance rider here – they still might win (Ed. Note: They won’t win).
But what’s the excuse this time? Is it the refs? Or James? Or the old “we weren’t ourselves” gong they’ve banged so often before.
It can’t be talent. With a few caveats (and more on Ibaka at a later date), they are strewn through with ability. They have a nice mix of experience and youth. They are a harmonious group with enormous depth. The coach and team president are proved commodities.
On every level, this is a model club. Every level but on the court when it counts. You can see that in their eyes.
“We’re down two. First one to win four,” DeMar DeRozan said, trying and failing to look like he believes it himself. “We go from there.”
Even the quotes sound recycled.
“We thrive off adversity,” DeRozan said. “Sometimes that brings the best out of you.”
Not this team. They don’t ‘thrive’ in adversity. They’re mired in it. That’s the Raptors’ ‘it’ factor.