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Toronto Raptors guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry walk off the court after losing to the Los Angeles Clippers on March 25, 2018.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

There is no more hurtful criticism than the sort that comes from your neutral peers. You don’t often hear it in the NBA, where everyone instinctively understands the connection between pride and falls.

But the Toronto Raptors have been so disappointing for so long that Thaddeus Young of the Indiana Pacers felt the freedom to be cruel. A week ago, the Pacers – who lost their only bonafide superstar in the off-season – pushed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to within a few minutes of defeat.

And then the Raptors tripped over the ropes on the way into the ring.

“Toronto has to win at least a couple games,” Young told HoopsHype. “We’re sitting at home and watching these games like, ’Man, we would’ve at least been in a game. We would’ve at least gotten ourselves back into the game and made it a fight.”

We’ve heard from a lot of people about what’s going on here – James as a human rabbit’s foot; the concrete hands of Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas; “effort” – whatever that means at this level.

This is the judgment that matters – an experienced NBA player who has no horse in the race has decided the Raptors are a collection of conscientious objectors.

When Young says that, he’s not talking about the guys coming off the bench for six minutes in the third. He’s talking about the stars – Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Like everyone in Toronto, he doesn’t want to say their names out loud. But we all know something is wrong.

The Raptors have already lost their series against the Cavaliers. No NBA team has ever come back to win a series from being down 3-0. No NBA team has ever looked less likely to do so than this one.

After Saturday night’s loss, Lowry made a rare solo appearance at a news conference. He’d at least had a decent night, while DeRozan looked as though he was throwing a bowling ball at the rim. In the year’s most important game, Toronto’s US$139-million man was benched for the fourth quarter.

Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry says the Raptors have to fight for what they want when they play the Cavaliers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinal in Cleveland. Toronto trails 3-0 in the best-of-seven set.

The Canadian Press

“I’m kinda lonely. I’m really lonely right now,” Lowry said in reference to his missing teammate. It was said so blankly that people mistook it for a joke.

Peevishly, Lowry added, “I am. I miss my guy.”

Back at the locker room, DeRozan had retreated to the Tony Robbins boilerplate he trots out on occasions like these. He’s had a lot of practice at it.

“I’m hoping we win,” DeRozan said. “Winning cures anything.”

Winning what? A game? What would that cure? Or the series? He can’t mean that, can he?

DeRozan is a lovely person who tries hard to be accommodating, and so always gets a pass. But you’re thinking, “Do you actually believe this stuff any more?”

We have grown so used to Lowry and DeRozan’s Abbott and Costello routine – one defiant, the other placid, off-setting each other like chalk that enjoys the company of cheese – we’ve stopped noticing that it’s dysfunctional.

Something about these two demonstrably excellent players added together equals disappointment.

A few years ago, they were two best buds being great at basketball together. Now it’s a co-dependent pair enabling each other to lose when it matters. They are bad together, ipso facto.

There is no tactical reason DeRozan and Lowry should be separated. Their styles and approaches are complementary. Maybe that’s the problem – that something that should work is being mistaken for something that does work.

Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself while assembling something electronic. You put plug A into socket B – like the instruction book says – and it doesn’t light up. So you take out the plug and put it in again. And again. And again. Mindlessly. Because that’s what the book is telling you to do. It still won’t turn the thing on.

DeRozan could not co-exist with another star, Rudy Gay, because both wanted to be standing in the same spot at the same time doing the same things. The Raptors traded Gay and got better via subtraction.

The thinking at the time was that Lowry was next to go. But while a move to New York was in the midst of slowly collapsing, Toronto got better. So it kept Lowry.

That was the right decision in 2013. It still was in 2014. And 2015. By 2016, it was starting to look shaky. Now it feels doomed. So why not sign the guy to a new US$100-million deal? What could go wrong?

At a certain point, you must concede that while a thing is good in theory, it is not in practice. Nobody who matters is willing to have that conversation. Giving up on either DeRozan or Lowry would ruin the (shrinking) legacy of this golden generation. Plus, there’s more than enough cover to keep pushing forward blindly.

The two are habitual all-stars on a team that’s rarely had any. They guarantee a stress-free regular season. Mostly, they sell a compelling narrative of “improvement” – the marketing fuel of any team. They are always getting just a bit better, making teammates better, promising to be better.

Except they’re not better. Where it actually matters, they’re getting worse. Great players respond to pressure. Lowry and DeRozan crumble under it, but on alternating nights so that everyone can ignore it. This way, the blame is diffuse.

How many times does Toronto have to pop all its rivets in the playoffs before someone will admit that the current formula has failed?

Is five enough times? Because that’s where we’re at, and five times sounds like a lot.

“Anything can happen,” DeRozan said on Sunday. “I don’t want to get all into the stats, 0-3 or whatever.”

Okay, sure, maybe. But based on history, I’d bet the other way.

Looking ahead to whatever comes next, this is a question of how you like your basketball team. Just good enough to get there, knowing it will never go the distance? Or infused with real risk and, therefore, real hope?

MLSE will take door No. 1. It has have no choice, since so much has already been invested. Most people will not blame it for sticking with the plan for two more years (the length of Lowry’s current deal).

But it’s about time for DeRozan, Lowry and everyone else on the Raptors to stop talking about being better. No one believes it any more. From now on, try aiming for just good enough.

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