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The Autopsy Report: It’s the hope that kills you

Have you ever woken up from a dream and not known where you were? Panic pouring your bloodstream, frothing and boiling inside you as you stare into the dark, yearning for comfort, confirmation of … something?

The Raptors woke up in the dark. They were cruising down Highway 101, hair blowing in the sun and salt breeze for most of three quarters. They were forcing turnovers on Joel Embiid in the post, blocking James Harden in single coverage, running in transition. Gary Trent jr. was hitting triples. Life was easy. Then the fourth quarter hits like a hangover, waking up cold and confused. It is foot-tapping-without-realizing, teeth-gritting-into-chips, fingernails-bitten-to-shreds anxiety. It isn’t just the fourth quarter — in hindsight, it was there whole time. The Scotiabank Arena crowd booed the ref crew before tipoff, booed Joel Embiid every time he touched the ball for four straight quarters and an overtime, chanted “refs you suck” even after calls went Toronto’s way. No, even when the basketball was working there was anxiety lurking. The crowd knew. The boos were louder than the cheers all night, more joy from their failure than your success. Embiid suffered boos the entire game each and every time he touched the ball.

Toronto even builds a lead in the fourth quarter. There’s still hope, plenty, even, at this point. Precious Achiuwa hits shots, blocks them on the other end. OG Anunoby tosses in an and-1 floater that the refs initially call a charge before changing it, but the space in between defines the moment, the crowd milling and buzzing, waiting, not knowing whether to cheer or boo. You can feel your stomach in that space, enough pressure to grind your beans and brew your coffee all at once. Shouldn’t a lead be more comforting than this? The Raptors don’t break though, not yet. Paul Reed dunks on Achiuwa as he’s trying to collect another block, so Achiuwa cuts in from the dunker spot on the next possession, hammers a dunk over Reed in response. No, they don’t break. They fight, the jump and jitter careening them forward for now.

But Embiid drags the Sixers, gargantuan, behemoth labouring under the weight of the moment, his history in this building. He can’t fight his way into the paint so he catches on the perimeter, rains jumpers on the Raptors from the free throws line, from deep. He spins and fades and tosses in everything he touches. Every time the Raptors crawl their way to points, Embiid answers — VanVleet hits a rare and needed pull-up three, so Embiid simply throws one in the other way. Toronto wakes up in the dark that quarter, not even knowing it was a fight, awoken by Embiid smashing his way through their defenses. There was no grift here, no parade of free throws. Just force and a team caught unawares, one minute on top of the world, the next forgetting where it was and yearning for someone to say it was all a dream.

There’s nothing you can do against shots like that,” intones Achiuwa after the game, flat because he has to be. “Fadeaway trees. Pump-fake threes. Fadeaway, pump-fake, spin-around, top-of-the-free-throw-line jumpers. There’s no better defense you can play.”

Maxey hits a hanging baseline pullup, every basket a chore, a boulder rolling up a hill, and VanVleet claps his hands together so loud that the sound cuts through the crowd all the way to the 600s. Harden drives, pushes Trent out of the way, Anunoby rotates from the other fucking corner to block it clean, no foul, refs call goaltending, then look at it. The crowd buzzes softly now, everyone standing and milling, not even a hum gurgling through the arena to mark time during the review. Silence. Where are we? After a review, the referees confirm goaltending, and the crowd is too gutsick even to boo now. The stress is rotting clean through the system now, crowd boiled to vapour. Later, Harden grifts for some free throws, and the crowd finally remembers to cheer, only now finds a momentary cure for anxiety, finds a branch to grab onto during the tumble down the river, when he misses the first free throws. Hopes. Is plunged back into the depths when he makes the second.

Achiuwa drives, tangles his arms with Harden, flails for free throws: the pefect Hardenesque move to foul out the pioneer himself. But anxiety is a leech, can bite without you noticing, and Achiuwa misses both free throws. The crowd is still standing, sinking. Tie game with only enough time remaining for one shot. Philadelphia ball. Your stomach drops for minutes at a time, hours, as the Sixers miss a game-winning three, a game-winning hook. Not even relief as the buzzer sounds, the Raptors surviving, knowing you have to endure five more minutes of this. Overtime: just more acid poured into your gut.

Anxiety can produce incredible results. Fumbled dribbles, dropped passes: Sure. Also: Anunoby ducking under a contesting arm, leaning towards the rim, beating the buzzer, to hit a go-ahead triple. But it doesn’t matter. Embiid carries the day, his magic battering aside Toronto’s efforts. He scores more than VanVleet and Pascal Siakam combined — defends them, too. He outscores them 23 to 8 in the second half and overtime.

You weren’t supposed to be here tonight. The Raptors were winning by 17 at one point, were laughing, were playing to their strengths and finding their identity and hitting shots and forcing turnovers and finally after two games longer than long acting like the Raptors again. You’re back in that alley, playing detective again, looking down on a corpse you’ve seen every night in your dreams. You remember it well. You saw death by blunt force trauma. You saw death by malaise. And you’re back again, hands gnarled and old, staring down at an old friend. You know exactly what killed the Raptors this time. Hope. It was the lead, the winning, the success. The car floating down Highway 101 crashed somewhere, spinning into the old forest majesty on the left or the Pacific yawning on the right.

No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 hole. The body suffering beneath you will wander drunkenly off, live to fight again, perhaps only once more. Part of you wishes it would just stay down. This is part of being a Raptors fan. You may have avoided it for a few years, forgotten it, but it never forgot you. His death was almost a relief, so wrenching was the lurch in your gut watching the end.  You know better than to hope, now.

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