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opinion

Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam is defended by Boston Celtics' Jaylen Brown in the first half of their NBA conference semifinal playoff game Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press

Finally. A reason to dislike someone in the NBA bubble.

Everybody in there gets along. They’re all going through an extreme experience together. They have a common cause.

That’s great for the social cohesion. It’s not so great for playoff basketball. Professional sports does not work without some level of animosity. And there is no animosity without villains.

So it was kind of the Boston Celtics to step up and offer to wear the velvet cape and twirl their mustachios.

The Celtics didn’t have a great night against the Raptors on Tuesday. In fact, the two teams looked they had changed Game 1 identities, Freaky Friday-style.

This time, Boston was lethargic from the jump, couldn’t hit a meaningful shot and couldn’t get its stars going.

And the Celtics still won. It ended 102-99. This was something we haven’t seen yet from Toronto this postseason – a thriller that came down to the final shot (missed, by Fred VanVleet).

If Game 1 was miserable for Toronto, Game 2 was worse. Because the Raptors played fairly well, and still couldn’t find any traction. Down 0-2 in the series, Toronto is now into the realm of must-wins.

Aside from the drama at the end, what distinguished this game was all the fakery going on. The Celtics weren’t the only ones going down like they’d primed the court with Crisco, but they did distinguish themselves in this regard.

The ne plus ultra of this behaviour came at a pivotal point in the third quarter. Toronto had created some scoreboard separation with an 8-0 run.

Kyle Lowry, doing his usual rugby impersonation, scrabbled around on the ground in the defensive zone and dug up a turnover. He flipped the ball to a streaking VanVleet.

VanVleet was on a full-on breakaway. Trailing well behind him was teammate Pascal Siakam. As VanVleet went for the uncontested lay-up, Boston’s Marcus Smart flung himself into Siakam’s back. Siakam didn’t even see him do it.

Smart bounced off as if he’d been elbowed in the throat, and then threw himself to the ground. What’s more extreme than diving? Skin diving? Underwater drilling? This was whatever that is.

Since this is the NBA, the call was, of course, an offensive foul on Siakam. These guys get it wrong a lot, but this was an especially ambitious level of wrong-getting.

As a general rule, I hate video replay. It is the misguided attempt to turn the art of refereeing into a science. It bogs down play. It gives us the impression of certainty in a milieu that is designed to demonstrate the opposite. Video replay is awful.

This was the exception that proved the rule. Smart’s ploy was so cynical, so brazen, that it required the small humiliation that followed. The officials required that even more.

The call eventually went the right way. Siakam was awarded a free throw. Toronto opened its largest lead of this series – 12 points.

But it took the refs forever to decide what was obvious. And in that time void, momentum did what it does – it shifted.

Shortly thereafter, Smart turned from Tonya Harding into Wild Bill Hickok. Suddenly, he couldn’t miss a shot.

In roughly three minutes at the outset of the fourth quarter, Smart made five three-pointers. After getting fouled on the last of them, he strutted around the court shouting and flexing. And you knew how this was going to end.

This isn’t entirely new territory for the Raptors. They went down 0-2 to the Milwaukee Bucks during last year’s championship run. The second of those losses was a humiliation.

Everybody remembers Kawhi Leonard and the Shot. Not everybody remembers his performance in Game 3 against Milwaukee. But that was his finest moment in the 2019-20 postseason.

Leonard won that double-overtime game by himself. He played 52 minutes despite the fact he had clearly hurt himself in the early going. He scored eight of Toronto’s 15 points in the second overtime period. It was a masterpiece.

Now you ask yourself – who on this Toronto team is capable of playing a masterpiece? Let’s not even get that far. Let’s call it a seminal work. Because someone’s going to have to play that way on Thursday.

A lot of Raptors have been good in this series, largely in spurts. The intensity is where you’d want it, again, in spurts.

But no one in red and white has found that flow that Leonard could access whenever it was necessary.

Leonard left a long time ago, but the Raptors may just now be learning what life without him is really like. They have a lot of talent. They don’t have that everybody-get-on-my-back-we’re-going-for-a-ride kind of talent.

Boston has it in Jayson Tatum. Toronto is supposed to have it in Siakam. But Boston is doing to him what Toronto (largely, Kawhi) did to Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo last time around. He is being marginalized. “We had pretty good shots [in the fourth quarter],” Siakam said afterward. “They just didn’t go in.”

Well, that may be true. But it’s guaranteed not going to win you playoff games. So maybe have a think about how you define “good.”

You don’t want to say it’s all on Siakam on Thursday, but a lot of it is. He hasn’t looked right since he entered the bubble. This was meant to be the moment when he distinguished himself as a) Leonard’s able replacement, and b) a complete star in his own right.

In that case, the stage is set and the audience in its place. Siakam has his opportunity. Boston has given Toronto ample reason to find the motivation for its characters.

Now we’ll see whether this team is as championship ready as it seems to believe it is, or whether it’s just done a nice job of performing the role.