It’s amazing to think about, but this could be it. This most promising iteration of the Toronto Raptors, the iteration of the team that was supposed to live on for the next several years, might be playing their last game together tonight.
It’s almost unfathomable. This is a 56-win team, by far the best assemblage of players in team history, and yet in twenty-four hours we could be talking about their dismantling.
Or not. Hopefully not. Maybe this team will find the internal fortitude to abort a weeklong trend of being consistently outplayed by an inferior opponent, turn the corner as a franchise and truly push into the new era that they’ve teased us with ever since Masai Ujiri sent Rudy Gay off to Sacramento over two years ago. They could fulfill their promise as the most successful version of the Toronto Raptors in team history, or they could go down as the most disappointing.
One way or another, though, everything changes tonight.
If they win then just about anything that happens thereafter is gravy. They just need to bust through that first round, get that monkey off of their back, win a seven-game series for the first time ever. Do that, and one can keep looking at this group as ascendant, growing and armed to be even better next year. Do that and one can look past how helpless they looked for long stretches against the Indiana Pacers. Just win the series and the whole narrative changes, because that’s what winning does: it defines you.
Of course, as the Raptors well know, so does losing. They have no business losing this series on paper, but the Raptors have come into the Playoffs as the higher seed year after year after year and found a way to make it look like they were trying to punch above their weight class. They get rattled so easily. They have no composure against physicality. Worst of all, their two anchors, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, have looked time and time again like they are wholly incapable of being the kinds of players that can lead a team to postseason success.
Which is why a loss tonight would be so devastating, because a loss would mean that that duo would have to be broken up. Do that, and this franchise takes a step back. They just would. They’d have to rethink how they are assembled, how they will play, and those kinds of adjustments take time, meaning a step back would be inevitable. The hit to their reputation would be devastating, the perception of them as a competent franchise would erode, and the ceaselessly adoring fan base would, once again, be the ones that suffer the most at the end of it all.
It’s why they can’t lose. They can’t. This can’t have all been for nothing. The steady growth, the swelling belief in the team, Jurassic Park, all of it. It can’t have been in vain. This team cannot let that have been in vain. They have been outplayed for most of the last three games, and they have to find a way to reverse that trend. They have to stop turning the ball over. They have to stop over-helping on defense. DeMar DeRozan needs to understand how to play Playoff basketball. So much needs to change, but they have to figure out how to do it, because this can’t be the end of these Raptors. Nothing good comes losing tonight. It would be a hard, demoralizing deconstruction that would be happening years too soon. The club has constantly downplayed the weight that is on their shoulders, but everyone knows what’s at stake here, even if they don’t want to talk about it. They have to win this game or they get torn apart.
In a way, that’s been the deal ever since Gay was traded. Only because they kept winning (and because the Knicks are a terribly run franchise) did they wind up staying together in the first place. There have been doubts about this particular core for years, yet despite the skeptics they kept winning (in the regular season, at least). But a stellar regular season won’t save them this time. Ujiri went out and brought in players for right now, these games, and guys like Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo and even the still-recovering DeMarre Carroll have done what they were brought in to do in this series. It’s the core that’s failed. It’s the core that keeps failing in the Playoffs. If they fail this time then they simply can’t be the core, anymore, and if they lose they almost certainly won’t be.
Which is why they can’t lose.
There isn’t anything that’s happened on the court in the last three games that should make one confident that the Raptors can win, of course, but they have to find a way. They have to correct a multitude of problems and, sadly, have to hope that Indiana just isn’t up to the moment. This isn’t about just winning this series, and in truth this is bigger, even, than keeping this core together. This is about this snake-bit franchise throwing off the shackles of failure that have bound them since 1995. This is about the next iteration of the team not having to stare down the humiliation of the team’s historical inability to win a seven-game series when they had nothing to do with those failures. This is about the fans, those incredible fans, who just deserve better. They deserve a win tonight. They have to get a win tonight. They’ve earned that. The team just has to find out how they are going to make it happen.