The Autopsy Report: Death by Natural Causes

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MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 16: Pascal Siakam #43, OG Anunoby #3 and Scottie Barnes #4 of the Toronto Raptors look on during the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on February 16, 2022 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

It has, somewhat shockingly, been a long time since you’ve been here. You took some time off of solving murders — learned to play guitar, chess, to love again. Hobbies! You did the dishes that piled up in your sink for so long you were eating chicken with two spoons in a mug. Regardless, you’re here again, looking down on a body, trying to understand exactly what was the cause of death. You’ve done it before. This will, you think absently to yourself, be the last time you look down on this specific body. Things will change in the months to come, as always happens. Perhaps it didn’t feel like time for this one to be laid to rest, but it never feels like it’s time. Yet it always is.

Death comes with more accoutrements than you could think possible. This time it’s not just an autopsy. There’s a burial, a eulogy. An offseason full of excitement and likely few happenings. A draft without a first-round draft pick. But it’s not time for those yet. For now it’s time to figure out what the hell happened here.

The body isn’t shriveled or decrepit. Not covered in wounds like it has been in the past. It died, yes, but it went out proud. It went after a stretch of good luck and good living had the world believing in miracles. But miracles don’t exist, not for the body at your feet. Because teams that start a 24 year old, a 20 year old, and a 23 year old (as well as a 22 year old in the second half!) are going to make mistakes. Perfection takes time to master and even more time to make consistent. The Raptors found a touch of perfect — more than most of us — in Game 5. It was harder to repeat than anyone could have thought.

The Philadelphia 76ers, for all their flaws, are an extraordinarily talented, veteran team. They found Toronto’s weakness and pressed on it until the Raptors’ eyes popped and knees buckled and defense shattered under a tide of blowbys. And the weaknesses involved those very youngsters that have been so incredible for the Raptors all season.

Gary Trent jr. was one of Toronto’s defensive weak spots. By running the correct order of pick and rolls, the Sixers manipulated things so that he either had to guard Joel Embiid on a switch (hard!) or give up blowbys to James Harden (survivable through five games in the series, but not in this one). Trent worked hard in a near-impossible situation, but ultimately he proved a defensive disaster. Scottie Barnes, after a near-perfect defensive showing in Game 5, made rookies mistakes on and off the ball, failing to stay in front of drivers or close the gaps as a helper. Precious Achiuwa, after pulling rabbits out of hats all series, ran out of magic on the offensive end.

That’s life when you depend on youths. They are, by and large, unreliable. Talented! Fun! Promising! But they don’t have the experience to do the same task — difficult, taxing — over and again without compromise. Toronto facing down Embiid and Harden and the Sixers was always going to be a high-wire act. Doing it after falling in an 0-3 hole makes it a marathon. Have you ever tried to run a marathon on a high wire? Probably impossible to do for a collection of rookie and second-year high-wirers.

At least, you think to yourself, this corpse went out running. It didn’t crawl, didn’t give up, didn’t ever ask to be put out of its misery. It fell off the wire, but it fell off brave. It was courageous to the last. You know what would have helped keep the team on balance? A point guard who’s done it all before and, hey, is an All Star — and one of the best shooters in the league, besides, on a shooting-starved team. Danny Green and Tobias Harris hit as many threes as the Raptors combined in the killing game. The Raptors may have looked great for stretches without Fred VanVleet, especially hobbled, but they were always going to need him to win this series. A healthy VanVleet from jump street would have made this series look very, very different.

Things aren’t as bleak as they seemed during the darkest throes of your autopsy spree. It’s not, you think, the hope that kills you. Hope is good, it turns out. Thankfully, gratefully, you realize that. Hope made the wins worth it — to believe that he Raptors could come back, to think they might make history: That made a series that, ultimately, shouldn’t have had a whole lot of fun instead feel like a blast. At times. It never feels good to lose. But at least you felt something other than the extended numb of Game 2.

Ultimately, the Raptors’ death blow was delivered by their own youthfulness. That’s an advantage over the long term — think of all the potential! — but a disadvantage in the now. You’ve traced the call, and it came from inside the house.

But the thing about the NBA is that you have to lose in the playoffs to win in the playoffs. This Raptors roster, before this series, didn’t have a whole lot of players who have lost in the playoffs. VanVleet and Siakam and OG Anunoby, yes, are veterans. But so many of the contributors are new to this thing. Well, were new to it. Now they have the scars, the lessons, and the memories they’ll need the next time around. And when they’re back on that high wire, maybe they’ll keep their balance when they start sprinting.

You start to walk home, not even bothering to watch the corpse rise and dust itself off. You know it will. Yes, you think to yourself. The crime was not a hard one to solve. And ultimately, there wasn’t really much of a crime of all. More death by natural causes — being young in a veteran’s league. You’re not broken after this one. You’ll keep your hobbies. Maybe next time, it’ll be the other guy who’s too young, too inexperienced in the face of the Raptors’ overwhelming competence and stability. And when that happens, it’ll be losses like tonight that built Toronto up into the killer it’s going to become.

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