Nearly two years ago, DeMar DeRozan stayed up until 4 a.m. to watch Superman die. It happened mere hours after the Toronto Raptors lost by 38 points to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the 2016 Eastern Conference finals, which remains the worst postseason loss in Raptors history. DeRozan had Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on his TV screen, virtually an act of self-harm given the context.
“It hurts,” DeRozan said of Superman’s death the next morning at practice. “We don’t need to see that.”
In his hotel room, DeRozan aligned himself with Superman. But on the basketball court, he was, unbeknownst to him, just another faceless villain disposed of to further the league’s prevailing narrative. How else could you explain the Raptors transforming into rag dolls in the presence of LeBron James year after year?
Those Raptors still held a happy-to-be-there temperament in 2016. They still saw the prospects of facing James as an honor and not a curse. They’d won two games on their home court to even that East finals at 2-2; what stopped them from winning more? LeBron did. He blotted out the sun. That 38-point loss set into motion a wave of dominance by the Cavaliers that has now spanned two years and three seasons. Monday’s 128-93 drubbing completed the second-round sweep and marked the 10th consecutive postseason Raptors loss at the hands of the Cavs. Toronto will have to carry into the summer and the rest of time the dubious distinction of being the first 1-seed to be swept in a conference semifinal series.
Over the past three seasons, the ebbing of LeBron’s tide has consistently revealed the Raptors as we know them: self-fulfilling prophets trapped by both LeBron-induced existential dread and their own sense of fatalism. It’s as though their identity as a team were never truly theirs and was instead piloted by the public’s (and LeBron’s) complete and utter lack of conviction in them.
“You find somebody who can stop LeBron in these moments, and I’ll give you $100,” DeRozan said last year in a similarly deflating four-game series. I hope he put his money away; Eastern Conference front offices have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade in search of such a person. But even then, no team has been humiliated by LeBron James quite like the Raptors (unless you count the Cavs). After three games, LeBron attempted nearly as many fadeaway jumpers as he did layups, and he hit a higher percentage of them than the Raptors did all of their shots combined. Toronto, to its credit, unlocked something in James: For the most part, great players are driven to great plays when they’re pushed to their limits. The Raptors, by contrast, wrought some of the best shotmaking of LeBron’s career by boring him to death. Toronto probably preferred it when LeBron’s boredom had him pretending to drink a fan’s beer, or shooting in-game jumpers with his left hand, and not this:
The Raptors now have 50 playoff losses in their franchise history; it took less than two years for LeBron to put his stamp on a quarter of them. More than DeRozan’s diligent season-by-season improvement, Kyle Lowry’s ascent from ever-the-bridesmaid status to being one of the best point guards in the league, or the team’s incredible player-development program, this era of Raptors history will be remembered and forgotten through the prism of LeBron’s greatness. Toronto had its best season ever, yet got swept by the Cavaliers, who put together arguably the worst supporting cast of LeBron’s past eight years. Considering what awaits just beyond the horizon, it could be decades before the Raptors reach these heights again. Context is meaningless in the Eastern Conference, and that has been the case for damn near 10 years. You either overcome LeBron, or you don’t. And when you don’t, there is an elephants’ graveyard that awaits your franchise’s futile era. Exit stage left, Toronto. It’s over.
I believed. I really did. I believed in the paradigm shift that Dwane Casey and Nick Nurse had instilled in the team: more passes, more 3s, more activity from the bench. I believed in Casey’s faith in his young players, allowing them to play through mistakes (of which there were shockingly few during the regular season) and develop confidence as playmakers, no matter where they stood in the positional spectrum. I believed in DeRozan’s growth as a shooter, and in Lowry’s sacrifice in becoming more of a background player, and in OG Anunoby being a transformational defensive talent despite his inexperience. I bought in, like I always do. Because if I have a type, it’s fatally flawed NBA teams that flirt with greatness despite a clockwork rejection.
I fell in love with basketball, like many did, when the high-octane 2004-05 Phoenix Suns led by Mike D’Antoni sidestepped the drudgery of early-aughts basketball and paved a new course for the future. Gregg Popovich’s fundamentally perfect Spurs weren’t just a thorn in his side, they were the impaling knife both killing the Suns and keeping their revolution alive and relevant. But eventually, Phoenix got weary of the ass-kickings. Then-GM Steve Kerr traded for Shaq, dropping an anvil on everything the Suns had previously established. I’ve never fully recovered from this shot, which effectively ended the D’Antoni era:
In 2015, I thought the Clippers had made the leap out of their mid-tier morass. I thought they were the second-best team in the league, and after their first-round series victory over the Spurs in an all-timer of a Game 7, I felt validated. And then, in the second round, they served up the original 3-1 meltdown of our generation, an improbable rally from the Houston Rockets inexplicably led by Josh Smith and Corey Brewer that haunted Lob City for the next two years and led to its disbandment:
The teams I enjoy watching most are the ones most doomed to fail; in that sense, I’m like most fans—I’ve just never attached myself to any one lost cause. I’ve always rooted for narrative reversals, for curses to be broken. I’ve always tried to rebuke preconceived notions because, if sport is art and art imitates life, then I’ve refused to believe that the organizing principles we allow sports to represent could be so rigid as to deny the change we’re all capable of undergoing. We aren’t always who they say we are. Right?
But then I watch the Raptors unravel and wonder whether fundamental changes in our behavior are even possible. DeRozan attempted nine 3-pointers in the first two games and missed all of them; he attempted precisely zero in games 3 and 4. DeRozan has played in 14 playoff games against the Cavaliers and has not made a single 3 across three different series. I keep going back to something DeRozan told ESPN’s Zach Lowe in January 2016: “I have no problem shooting 3s, I just feel like I can get to the basket at will, so it almost feels like settling,” he said. “But I know I have to take them, so now I’m just gonna shoot it.” It would take another two years for him to make good on his word. For most Raptors fans, it was better late than never, but in the team’s most trying moments, DeRozan looked as though he had a crisis of faith. It looked like he’d relapsed.
The Old DeMar returned in this series, and the Old DeMar is one of the easiest stars in the league to throw off his game; without the new wrinkles he’d worked so hard to incorporate during the season, it was just another rerun of the player the opponent already knew how to shut down. He was a game-low minus-29 on Monday and was ejected after a flagrant 2 late in the third quarter. During the TNT Game 4 broadcast, announcers Ian Eagle and Brent Barry mentioned that the Raptors didn’t have a film session at Sunday practice in an effort to eliminate the memory of Game 3; they watched some tape the morning of, then lightened the mood with highlights of their players at lower levels of basketball, from college and AAU. The subtext? Be the player you’ve always been. Evidently, that wasn’t the right message to send.
Two years ago, when Raptors coach Dwane Casey talked about playing for pride and not allowing LeBron to break their will, it came from an optimist’s perspective. There was still something to be learned from their postseason struggle; they could only grow from the experience. In this series, it’s felt more like an involuntary nerve response from a lifeless body. Lowry and DeRozan sat beside each other at the podium after Game 4, forlorn, with caps pulled down to cover their eyes. “The last three years have been rough for us, competing against this team,” DeRozan said. “Maybe they just got our number.”
But Casey’s optimism returned in his postgame interview. “[LeBron is] a matchup nightmare for anybody, and I think anybody who’s played against him will see that,” Casey said. “But at some point, that’s going to come down. That’s going to change. … For whatever reason, we got the unlucky draw every year of going against him, but it’s going to come a time when that gauntlet is going to come down. Why not us?”
It’s a beautiful notion, but they may have run out of opportunities. If this series was any indication, there is nothing new under this sun. There might not be anything left to learn except what it looks like when this team is finally shuffled off its mortal coil.