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On the Raptors, and being human through disappointment

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The Raptors have worked all season, only to have a familiar brick wall hit them. They deserve our empathy.

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Lowry is an easy player for me to relate to. It’s mostly his sardonic sense of humour, that feigned apathy for everything that masks an individual only a few people get to know. Even after Game 3, when he opened up for just a second, it felt like something thrown aside as a joke. I get that.

Lowry has been the heart of this generation of the Raptors — when he succeeds, we all feel part of that pitbull mentality. When he guards a player a foot taller than him, I damn near feel euphoric, sneering at the TV. “Haven’t they realized that’s not a mismatch?” Metaphors for daily life are hard to come by in sports (these are rich dudes playing shooty hoops), but that we can get something so literal — a player that’s too diminutive, someone who was counted out for the first half of his career, fighting against a giant — it’s easy to take our point guard for granted.

Lowry again drove the bus for the Raptors in Game 3 of their series against the Cavaliers. Somehow 27 points, seven assists, and six rebounds don’t tell the full story — Kyle was aggressive on defence, and refused to relax for a second of Toronto’s fourth quarter comeback. Down 14 headed into the last frame, they came all the way back to tie it with 8.8 seconds left.

But then, we know how this story ends. LeBron James hits the shot. The world laughs at the Raptors anew, at Lowry and at DeMar DeRozan. ESPN runs a SportsCenter Top 10 of the ten best angles of LeBron’s jumper. Good lord.

The keyboards start clattering too — when is the right time for the Raptors to abandon this core of players? After three years of disappointment against the league’s best player, at what time do you just submit yourself to an easier pain — one that comes from apathy about your mediocre team, instead of a more tearing death in the playoffs?

And yes, there’s grey area between LeBron owning Toronto and the Raptors having some self-inspection. There are still matchups that Dwane Casey hasn’t seemed to recognize, switches that give LeBron an easy path to the basket. All the time, it feels like the Raptors are scrapping without a plan — trying to beat a great player through sheer force of will, with clipboards still in the gym bag.

It’s so easy to feel disappointment watching all this and wanting to be done with this feeling. I’ll admit to... not having the most positive outlook while watching Raptors games. There is some masochism for me after years of seasons finishing much like this. Toronto, too often, doesn’t seem to lose valiantly — but in a flaming heap. It wears on people and, as Nathaniel Friedman appropriately put it, fails to inspire respect from objective observers.

In dark times, I feel like a 59-win season with numerous high points isn’t worth it for this week of watching LeBron turn the Raptors into playthings. DeRozan’s dunk on Detroit, Fred VanVleet’s 20-point games, the reckless abandon of Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl — that almost seems fraudulent now. Wasn’t that supposed to lead to something? Is there an end point where the Raptors actually win the big game?

But for once, I encourage everyone to feel better the way I have — by putting yourself in the shoes of those actually playing the game. While some fans want to be done with this core, heart-broken and ready to move on, the Raptors expected better too. You could see it etched on their faces after the LeBron James buzzer-beater. Jonas Valanciunas, slumping over. Serge Ibaka, hands on his head. DeMar DeRozan, benched for the last 14 minutes, standing behind his teammates with a frozen look on his face. This feels bad for us, but I assure you it feels worse for them.

Masai Ujiri and the front office are going to be faced with some difficult decisions in the face of this. Dwane Casey has made mistakes, but will a coaching change be a shift part and parcel with a “culture reset”, one that’s ultimately ineffective in the face of greatness? Deciding whether the player core is worth developing might be a decision already made by contracts. Lowry, DeRozan, and Ibaka are locked in and will be difficult to trade without there being imbalance. It’s hard to find flaw in any of the young pieces Toronto has brought aboard. There’s no shame in running everything back, even if Boston gets healthy and Philadelphia takes another step. It’s okay to be good, but not great.

Still, there’s an emotional toll to be had. Even Lowry, the even-keeled, sarcastic dude who went from a coach’s nightmare to the fiery leader of an Eastern Conference number-one seed, was left picking up the pieces after Game 3.

The Raptors, when in focus, are more than a laughing stock. They are human too, and as they meet their end inevitably over the next few days, it’s important for us to remember that and relate to it.