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Is It Happening Again?

The Raptors won 58 games and have a bona fide star in Kawhi Leonard. But a Game 1 loss to the Magic was all it took to dredge up postseason fear and loathing yet again.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“It is happening again,” the Giant tells Dale Cooper in the seventh episode of the second season of Twin Peaks. As somebody who cares more or less equally about the collected works of David Lynch and the fortunes of the Toronto Raptors, I couldn’t help but think of those words in the millisecond after D.J. Augustin hit a go-ahead (and strangely uncontested) 3-pointer to give the Orlando Magic a 104-101 win in the first game of their first-round series Saturday. It is the fifth time in six seasons that Toronto has dropped a postseason home opener. Those Ls have come against five different franchises, in games ranging from blowouts to nail-biters. That feeling, you can say what it is but only in French. For we the North, each loss lives in its own infamy, although by this point we’ve gotten used to it. It is happening again.

It’s not just that the narrative of the Raptors’ digging themselves into a hole is familiar, it’s that the narrative-about-the-narrative is getting old. Two years ago, The Ringer let me write A Brief History of the Toronto Raptors Coming Up Short, in which I speculated about whether 2018 would finally be the year that the Raptors escaped the proverbial tar pit of the franchise’s primal scene: that wayward jumper by Vince Carter in 2001 against the Philadelphia 76ers that unofficially ended the Vinsanity era with a miss and established a collective inferiority complex. [Ron Howard narrator voice: It wasn’t the year.] Last April, Alex Wong wrote an excellent essay for The New Yorker whose title, “The Anxiety and Fear of the Toronto Raptors Fan,” pretty much summed up the whole deal; this past January, The Ringer’s Danny Chau took a field trip to our fair city—and its peerless roti establishments—to take the temperature of a fan base that’s not only inured to losing but inured to hearing about how it’s inured to losing. Familiarity breeds contempt, or maybe just comfortable numbness. Give the denizens of Jurassic Park a cardiac MRI and you’ll get something that looks like those photos of the black hole—a galaxy-sized void where our hearts should be.

Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself in the days after watching Augustin’s 3-pointer go down. The crafty Magic guard—who may or may not have been picturing his six-week stint in Toronto in 2013 as he pumped in a career-playoff-high 25 points—called it “the biggest shot of [his] career.” And if Orlando goes on to win the series, it could end up being more than that—it may be the shot that rewrites the Raptors’ history. All season long, local message boards and podcasts have been preoccupied with the very real possibility that Kawhi Leonard will decamp to Los Angeles to join the Clippers in free agency. The common denominator in these conversations has been the idea that an extended playoff run in a wide-open Eastern Conference would do even more than load management to keep Kawhi in the fold (the Raptors’ next-best pitch: a home-cooked meal of cow penis from one of his teammates). A Finals appearance is a pretty big incentive to stick around; getting upset in Round 1 by a team with 16 fewer regular-season wins is—try to follow the logic here—not.

For his part, Leonard seemed nonplussed (even more than usual) in his postgame comments, remarking that in the playoffs, “you’re going to go up and down” (spoken like a former Spur). His comments were echoed by Kyle Lowry, whose claim “we know who we are” sounds the right note of self-confidence but is not exactly comforting in context. The offseason departures of head coach Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan and the deadline-day trade of Jonas Valanciunas have left Lowry as the last man standing from the lovably overachieving Raptors of 2013-14. As such, he’s an emblem of what the team has come to stand for: regular-season excellence setting up playoff mediocrity. The confounding nature of Lowry’s stat line from Game 1 is, in its way, a microcosm of the precise, perplexing nature of the Raptors’ recent postseason history: He went 0-for-7 from the field but also contributed seven rebounds, eight assists, two steals, and finished a team-high plus-11. Maybe this contradiction means that statistics are a damned lie. Or maybe it means that the Raptors literally can’t win.

For the record, I’m pretty sure that the Raptors have at least four wins in them this postseason. A team boasting two All-Stars, the favorite for the Most Improved Player award, and one of the deepest and most versatile rosters around is capable of battling back against an opponent that shot over its head (48 percent from 3) and still needed a miscommunication between Leonard and Marc Gasol—two signature defensive players of the past decade—to eke out a win. But even if Toronto does get its act together and escape the abject humiliation of a first-round exit, it’ll be hard to shake the overriding sense that these supposedly new-and-improved Raptors are actually just more of the same.

Loving this team means accepting that life is pain and also that time is a flat circle. These also happen to be prerequisites for loving the movies of David Lynch, which are all about thwarted desire—“you’ll never have me,” whispers Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway, which came out in 1997, in the nascent years of the Raptors franchise, and may or may not represent the elusive possibility of them ever sweeping a goddamned series. They’re also about repetition and recurrence, the realization that nothing ever really changes, no matter how much you want it to, or how much it seems like it will. I don’t speak French, but I know what that feeling is called: déjà vu.

“What year is this?” asks a disoriented Dale Cooper in the final scene of Twin Peaks: The Return. Stuck in some weird, purgatorial loop of time and space, our hero is unable to differentiate between past and present. I feel you, Coop.