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In early January, after their first significant dip in form, Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri wandered by Kyle Lowry's locker. It was after practice. The team had just lost four in a row, but the mood was still loose.

Ujiri asked Lowry if he could trade the Raptors' first pick in the next draft.

Translation: Are we good enough right now that I can begin gambling our future?

He didn't wait for an answer. He wanted his best player to understand the question as a challenge.

It was smart psychology, and it hasn't worked. Yet.

At the start of this season, the Raptors were the kid who doesn't realize how good he is. He's just out there having fun. They were everyone's dream eighth-grader.

The players managed to deflect most of the praise that came their way, while still absorbing some of its heat.

"You believe in us?" they'd seem to say. "Maybe, but not half as much as we believe in ourselves." Still, this was a mutual-admiration society with limited appeal. All the members lived in Canada.

As wins piled up, that began to change. There was a deluge of articles in both mainstream and cult U.S. outlets, but the tipping point was probably Charles Barkley.

At just about the same time Ujiri was challenging Lowry, Barkley was challenging the entire league during a TNT broadcast.

"If Kyle Lowry doesn't make the all-star game, I'm not going to it," Barkley said.

A lot of casual basketball fans lifted their heads.

The team became a sort of hipster password. "Oh, you like the Warriors? That's pretty obvious of you. I like the Raptors."

That wouldn't have been a problem, except that the team appeared to be listening. The club's remarkable travelling support was another (very well-intentioned) problem.

The Raptors knew they'd already won the Atlantic Division, guaranteeing themselves no worse than a fourth-place seeding in the playoffs.

They needed further incentives. "Play hard and win games" was neither sexy nor specific enough. Suddenly, getting Lowry into the all-star game was a primary mission. This was going to prove the team hadn't just emerged, but that they'd arrived.

Unfortunately, it worked. Since it's backfired, one hopes MLSE has finally learned the lesson that all-star games should be treated like children during cocktail hour – that is to say, ignored.

Many niggling problems have afflicted the Raptors in the intervening two months. The on-floor chain of command has broken down, along with Lowry's game. The ball doesn't move. The decision-making has become frantic. The best players are taking terrible shots – and missing them most of the time.

"As a group, they've never been hunted before," observed one NBA source. Compared to chasing, evading is exhausting.

Just over a week ago, they torched Atlanta. When it was over, they were very careful about boasting. This wasn't manners or sense. Rather, they looked a little worried. Perhaps because they had no idea how they'd done it.

On Saturday night, they played the worst team in the NBA, the New York Knicks. At this point, the Knicks are the inmate basketball team at a prison, and they only play the guards. It is not in their interest to win.

Toronto didn't give them any choice. They rested Lowry, who it now appears is playing through something more than the usual mid-season aches. Riding a new, exciting talent recently emerged from Italy – Andrea Bargnani – New York came out and fell on top of Toronto, then lay there until the Raptors suffocated.

This 103-98 loss wasn't about basketball. This was psychological. This was a team that has itself so turned around, it needs to put its clothes on backwards.

"Nobody said this was going to be easy," Greivis Vasquez told reporters afterward.

Sure, they did. Everyone said that.

It isn't the play sets, or offence, or effort, per se. Confidence is part of it, but the Raptors' main problem is existential. At the beginning of the season, this team knew who it was – an outsider with a puncher's chance.

Now, it has no idea.

The erratic, up-and-down performances started the moment the Raptors began to consider everyone else's notion that they might be a dark-horse championship contender.

They aren't. They aren't even close. They're two or three players away. A point of order – 20 NBA teams are two or three players away from a title.

What the Raptors need now is to rediscover who they are. If America is the native country of basketball, Toronto is its Island of Misfit Toys.

There isn't a player on this roster that hasn't, at some point in his career, been an afterthought. Most have had their skills or character or basic make-up loudly doubted by their employers. A few have just been ignored. Most have been effectively fired.

It's a patchwork crew of guys who at some point were weighed and judged and found to be second-rate. But it all works together.

Ujiri and Lowry were both right. The Raptors time is now. The question is "Time for what?"

This team is a long way from reaching its peak. It is several moves and several players from that goal. I'll say this right now: I don't think this roster will be recognizable in two years' time. I believe it'll be turned over entirely.

The players should think about that as well. This is a chance. Like all chances, it's a limited-time offer.

What they are right now is fun and dangerous. There are no expectations. One playoff-round win – that would be a successful season. Everything else is cherries.

In the end, losing may help them get back to that proper headspace. It reminds them of their place in the world, what people really think of them, and who their real fans are.

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