Before Game 7 decides how we should judge the Toronto Raptors’ season, let us pause to admire the delightful chaos of the Boston Celtics.
Like the Raptors, the Celtics were all in this year. They have an elite star, which is the NBA prerequisite for being all in. Unfortunately, their elite star is a bit of a wingnut.
You will know Kyrie Irving from such hits as 'I don’t even let the ground touch the ball,’ ‘Defence is for cowards’ and ‘The Earth is flat and you can’t prove otherwise.’
When Boston acquired Irving (after he had inexplicably picked a fight in Cleveland with LeBron James, which is about as smart as picking a fight in Pyongyang with Kim Jong-un), it was sold as a steal of Great Train Robbery proportions.
This season, Boston figured out why security took that day off.
Utilizing a slow, season-long trickle of passive-aggressive comments directed at teammates and an inability to take any responsibility beyond chucking up 50 jumpers a night, Irving undid the Celtics. They were just steamrolled by the Milwaukee Bucks. Not beaten. Flattened like hot asphalt.
For most of the series, Irving shot like the rim had been shrunk a couple of inches.
When someone asked him about it, Irving came out with the most wonderfully tone-deaf answer in sports history: “Who cares?”
I don’t know. The people paying you US$20-million to do so?
Then he suggested the problem was that he’d taken 22 shots that night. Maybe he should have taken 30?
This is what happens when you can’t trust the guy in charge.
All sports teams are rigidly hierarchical. The order goes like this: veterans, stars, good guys, journeymen, the people at the end of the bench just hanging on and rookies. Irving is both a veteran and a star. Where he goes, others follow, even if he’s leading everyone off the edge of a cliff.
Irving’s teammate, Marcus Smart, tried to be nice about it: “We took him in with full arms. We tried to understand him. We never really understood. We’re not in his shoes.”
That’s simultaneously a compliment and an insult. It’s Irving-esque.
The Raptors’ great, good luck in acquiring Kawhi Leonard was that he appears completely unbothered by how he is perceived. It really bothers Irving.
Some nights, it looks as though Leonard doesn’t care very much what anyone is doing around him. He is that self-contained. Irving has a bad tendency to stop in the middle of the court and ogle or eye-pierce teammates after they’ve screwed something up.
After Thursday’s crooked loss in Philadelphia, Kyle Lowry spent some of his podium time slowly dragging a finger down the stats sheet, listing off all the teammates who’d missed a ton of shots. There were a lot of them. Notably, he wasn’t one.
Lowry wasn’t cruel about it, but it also didn’t need to be said out loud.
But you can’t get any sense of how things are going emotionally unless you are in the locker room directly after a big loss.
There’s a feeling that permeates a room that has been rattled. The Toronto Maple Leafs changing quarters had that feeling after they’d lost Game 6 during these NHL playoffs. The atmo was funereal rather than just quiet; the eyes of the guys in there a bit too wide. John Tavares – the Leonard of the Leafs – came out and said all the right things, but there was too much edge in the tone.
You didn’t know the Leafs were going to lose Game 7, but you had something more than an inkling.
On Thursday night, Leonard didn’t speak to the media. Afterward, he was sitting at his locker in his underwear, scrolling through his phone, as uninterested as though this defeat had come in February.
Alongside him, Raptors assistant coach and designated Kawhi whisperer, Jeremy Castleberry, was pleasantly scanning the room. He looked exhausted, as though he’d played, too.
Leonard’s mood is impossible to read, but Castleberry seems to function as his avatar in that regard, as any good bagman should. And Castleberry didn’t look panicked.
Had Leonard been sitting there with his head in his hands or staring off forlornly into the middle distance – a familiar sight among the stars of Raptors teams past – you’d be worried. But nobody was worried.
The postgame interviews were cordial and upbeat. Pascal Siakam said he was “excited” for Game 7 and it didn’t sound like a desperate lie.
What does it all mean? Well, nothing, if Joel Embiid decides to go Shaq-in-his-prime for one evening or Ben Simmons turns into Magic Johnson. But the Sixers haven’t come anywhere close to proving here they have the mental strength to string together two muscular efforts in a row.
It may be cursing them, but you like the Raptors’ chances back at home, with the pressure fully applied and Kawhi on their side.
That’s why you went out and bet everything on him. Not just because he’s a good basketball player – there are plenty of those. But because he isn’t touched by whatever nonsense is going on around him. That is a truly special skill. It’s a greater indicator of future success than talent.
Back in Boston, they haven’t learned that lesson. Irving will be a free agent in a few weeks and the Celtics are on record saying they want him back. You feel for them. Without Irving, a team built to win becomes a team stuck in the middle, at least for the short term.
There is a possibility that wantaway star Anthony Davis might join him there, if only because only Boston has the collection of assets necessary to secure him. That might be enough to tempt Irving back as well.
In an imperfect New England world, Boston gets to start this all over again next year.
But you can’t buy the right mix of characters. That’s a commodity so rare you usually only luck into it. The Raptors think they have it. We’ll be able to say for sure around 11 p.m. on Sunday.