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LeBron James might have broken the Raptors, and you can’t really blame them

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LeBron James has busted the Raptors’ spirit ... again.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors - Game Two Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Every year, my dad grows peppers in his backyard garden. He’s big on variety. Standard red and green bell, jalapeños and red chilis are staples of the rotation. Sometimes he’ll mess around with a planter full of Anaheim or serrano — one year he had these ungodly hot little orange ones that he surely picked up at some underground black vegetable market.

Before the bite of September nights threatens to kill it all off, he’ll harvest the crop. The next day, he’ll go buy up two dozen mason jars and a swimming pool’s worth of vinegar, and start pickling. I make sure to clear space in my fridge, as does everyone in my family. If you visit my parents’ house in September, you’re getting a damn jar of peppers whether you like it or not. I haven’t eaten a hot dog at home that didn’t have a some amount of pickled pepper on it for like three years. They’re a perfect garnish, made and vacuum sealed with love at the factory of Dad.

Sometimes, though, he goes a little overboard with whatever apparatus it is that he definitely spent too much money on to seal the jars. Cracking open a new jar is an event. If your roommates aren’t home to offer support, don’t even bother trying. I had a sore wrist for about two months after conquering one in January.

There is now one jar left in my fridge from 2017’s crop (a great year, if slightly bested by the prolific summer of 2014). And damnit if the cap just won’t screw open. Hot water over the grooves, applying friction with rubber bands, prying at it pathetically with a butter knife masquerading as a crowbar — I’ve tried every home remedy known to frail upper-bodied lovers of briny delights. It won’t budge.

After three or four failed tries you reach a point where you you give up, find comfort in knowing you’ve thrown the kitchen sink and more at the stubborn lid, and tip your cap to Dad for crafting an impenetrable fortress atop the jar. Eventually you have to stop asking why you can’t open the jar of peppers, accept that it’s bested you, and doom it to a lifetime of hanging out in the back of the fridge. August isn’t too far off, and there are rumblings that Thai green chilis are going to be part of this year’s ensemble. Maybe those jars will relent more easily.

All of this is to say that on a much lower stakes but still deeply human level, I understand and relate to the Toronto Raptors and their LeBron James problem. He is the unflinching screw-top lid the Raptors have reached the point of giving up trying to twist off.

Tuesday’s Game 1 loss could be explained away and rationalized by Toronto. OG Anunoby did a serviceable job doing the impossible. James shot 12-of-30 from the floor, the Raptors’ offense functioned as it was designed, and if not for some bad ju-ju around the rim, the Raptors probably come away from the Game swearing they felt the cap starting to loosen.

Game 2 showed it was an all an illusion, that the jar is just as far from being opened by the Raptors as it’s ever been.

For the first 24 minutes it followed Game 1’s script to a T: A promising start from the jumbo starters against Cleveland’s Love-at-centre formation, followed by a hairy end to the second quarter that felt like a mini victory when the Raptors survived without total disaster.

Whatever grip the Raptors still had on the edge of the cliff to close the half slipped as the third quarter opened, with LeBron and Kevin Love teaming up to dish out the Mufasa treatment in short order.

After six quarters of hanging in and looking the part despite discouraging results, the third quarter brought back flashes of the same old quaking terror in the face of LeBron that the Raptors have become synonymous with, warranted or not.

As part of a quarter-opening run that ended the game with 22 minutes still to play, LeBron — whose shooting percentage in this series has been contingent upon how much he feels like scoring on a given possession — opted to play a game of HORSE against himself, each fading 20-footer driving another stake into the collective psyche of the Raptors.

We are all Jonas Valanciunas.

There’s been plenty of internet psychology done these last couple days, with near everybody ascribing the Raptors’ squirreliness against this particular opponent to some sort of mental weakness. That line of thought probably undersells LeBron’s individual greatness, and ignores the resilience the Raptors showed after dropping a winnable Game 4 against the Wizards. But even if it is true, and the Raptors’ simply lack the fortitude to handle the LeBron challenge, can you really blame them? Toronto isn’t the first city LeBron’s declared mayorship over during his run of Eastern Conference untouchability. It almost certainly will not be the last.

LeBron defies schemes. Stay disciplined and leave his primary defender on a island, while staying in the shirts of the shooters around him, and he’ll hit seven spine-shattering jumpers in a half. Give in to the temptation to help, and you give the greatest passer in a generation a target to hit with dead-on precision. Whether he’s pressed into it or just doesn’t feel like expending the energy to power his way to the rim, he can turn Lance Stephenson shot quality into Larry Bird results. Gargantuan minutes totals don’t slow him down. Nothing outside of a match-up proof, anomalous super team does. That inescapable inevitability would grate on you, too.

Toronto could absolutely do a better job helping itself. Too many possessions have seen C.J Miles or DeMar DeRozan guarding one of James or Love — mismatches so pronounced that LeBron either gets the ball in the hands best able to leverage it, or takes it to the house himself without resistance. Game 2 saw Dwane Casey abandon the supersized look that crushed Cleveland’s smalls in the opener at the first sign up trouble in the second half, inviting wonky rotations and a general lack of offensive direction. It was a disappointing callback to a more reactionary version of Toronto’s much improved head coach. He is not blameless in the assessment of Thursday’s 18-point loss.

Casey also isn’t working with the complement of players he and everyone else expected he’d have on hand before the playoffs started. While the roster is fully healthy, the Raptors are operating with Serge Ibaka missing in action.

Ibaka is killing the Raptors. Flexibility was supposed to be a hallmark of this team. Ibaka’s shooting and rim protection was supposed to be the beam on which the Raptors could balance offense and defense against the Cavs’ most potent lineups. Six games into Ibaka’s spell of playoff uselessness, Casey might be secretly hoping for Patrick Patterson’s seven points and four boards to drop in from the ceiling during Game 3.

With Ibaka essentially unplayable, Casey is handicapped. So many of Toronto’s lineups with the potential to foil Cleveland’s small-ball barrage hinge on Serge. The Pascal Siakam/Ibaka front court was a mysterious weapon the Raptors kept mostly concealed this year, likely with this match-up in mind. Game 2 against Washington was busted open by Ibaka at the five surrounded by wings. When he gets his ass benched 107 seconds into a second half, things like Miles guarding Love in the post for five straight minutes happen.

“Serge wasn’t having his usual game. He was struggling,” said an unintentionally contradictory Casey after Game 2. “So we were searching, just trying to find somebody, get faster, get more points on the board in that situation.

“We were searching for offense, searching for spacing, searching for a lot of things at that time ... Serge hasn’t been himself, I don’t know what it is, but I think they went on what an 18-5 run to start the third and at that time we were just trying to make changes to mix it up.”

Toronto doesn’t need peak, Oklahoma City, four blocks a game Ibaka. Inconsistent, moderately engaged Orlando Ibaka would do. His regular season didn’t inspire confidence, but even his worst games would feature a chase down block or a couple threes. No one could have foreseen this kind of drop off — especially after he opened the playoffs with a banger of a game against the Wizards — but it has happened, and the Raptors are operating a critical man down as a result.

You could argue that a team relying on Serge Ibaka in 2018 has no business beating a LeBron-led team; that it’s a roster deficiency Masai Ujiri and the front office should have foreseen becoming a problem. Or maybe Dwane Casey should be scapegoated. Toronto’s regular season was dominant and convincing enough to have the Raptors as Vegas favourites over the Cavaliers, a team they were drastically better than on every statistical level. Yet while Casey’s top-five defensive scheme punished anemic opposing offenses, it is not conducive to stopping a LeBron-led attack. Should this season have been more geared to topping one specific opponent as opposed to just achieving general success? Should Casey lose his job because one indomitable match-up has flummoxed him?

These are the questions LeBron forces the teams he demoralizes to ask about themselves. When LeBron retires at age 43 or whatever it’ll be, one of his greatest accomplishments will be tarnishing the legacy of a decade’s worth of vividly memorable teams and players whose only misgiving was being less good than the best ever. It’s a fucked up way to evaluate anything — in comparison to an outlier so outstanding it warps the bell curve — but that’s the fate of these Raptors, same as the Arenas Wizards, the 60-win Hawks, the Thibs Bulls, the Paul George Pacers, the Big 3 Celtics and even the 73 win Warriors that came before them. Things look rosy in Philadelphia and Boston right now — LeBron will probably crush those spirits a time or two before passing over the throne, too.

Adding to the sting of it all for Toronto is that just a week ago, it finally seemed like the hurdle could be leaped. LeBron lulled everyone — Raptors fans, the confidence-spouting players, even Zach freaking Lowe — into a false sense of belief that he was mortal, even though he was as individually great as ever against Indiana. Play the Cavs/Pacers series again and the Cleveland probably takes it in five if J.R. Smith, Jeff Green and Love shoot the way they have through two games against Toronto. Toronto’s ineffective defense shares blame in LeBron’s henchmen heating up, but it was also only a matter of time before positive regression kicked in and the looks created via LeBron’s gravity started falling.

If this is to be another unceremonious exit for Toronto, it really shouldn’t be accompanied by shame. Getting crushed by LeBron won’t erase the growth the Raptors exhibited this season. If someone looking to lose weight sets a target of dropping of 75 pounds but only gets to 50, it’s not a failure; the 50 pounds aren’t simply slapped back on as punishment for coming a little short. Self improvement is valuable even if elusive perfection isn’t achieved.

Everyone has unconquerable demons. The Raptors just happen to be facing theirs in front of millions of people waiting to fire off the most clever quip possible. You can call the Raptors’ LeBron problem a case of mental fragility, softness, fear of the moment, or whatever else you’d like. Or you can call it what it more likely is: a profoundly human and sympathetic struggle that any regular person would replicate if presented with a similarly insurmountable challenge — whether it be the greatest basketball player on earth, or a stubborn jar of peppers.