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The Raptors have escaped the infinity mirrors of their past, so where to next?

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After the highs of Kawhi’s Game 7 winner, the Raptors are back in the thick of a playoff war against the Bucks, and already down 1-0. This time, however, it feels different to root for Toronto.

NBA Finals 2019: Top 5 moments from the Toronto Raptors 2019 Championship postseason, Kawhi Leonard Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

I think about basketball synchronicity a lot. In the winter of 2018, a couple of Twitter threads were circulating, collecting tiny moments of on-court symmetry: players unwittingly running and jumping and bending down and falling over in perfect sync together, as nimble and coordinated as backup dancers. Eventually, people started stitched these clips together into supercuts that were somehow never long enough, no matter how long they were. From the second I saw my first one I was obsessed; watching them felt so full-body satisfying to me that it was almost gross. It’s my ASMR, I joked to my friends, not really joking at all. After I’d watched all the compilations, I even started looking for similar coincidences in the games I watched on TV, pausing and rewinding even the most tedious interstitial moments like I was panning for gold.

On one hand, it’s obvious why I loved these moments so much: they’re cool! But also, why? Why exactly is it so fascinating to watch people doing the same thing the same way at the same time side by side like that? Is it the uncanniness of seeing something spontaneous that looks like it’s been programmed? Is symmetry just inherently seductive? Is it, as Vinson Cunningham said, that style is great, but sometimes it’s nice to watch it fall away? Or is it all of that, plus something else? In poetry, symmetry is a shortcut into the metaphysical; the repetition of a word or a phrase or an idea can draw you closer to the structure of the poem itself, but also to the structure of the world. You can see proof of how this works in the comments and Twitter threads surrounding those videos, where someone is always going Holy shit! Glitch in the Matrix!! Moments of acute sameness can make you feel like you’re glimpsing some universal organizing principle — something bigger and deeper and more essential than any single phrase or gesture.

I think about this a lot while I’m watching the Raptors. How could I not? For decades, being a fan of this team has meant feeling a special kind of panic in the postseason; the specific anxiety that the past, present and future are just one long continuous hall of mirrors, predicting and manifesting and reflecting itself back at itself again and again and again. Raptors Anxiety is all about symmetry. The uncanny parallels between the past and the present — LeBron, DeRozan, etc. — are why, in the past, you may have felt not just stressed out but a little bit psychic whenever a playoff game started to sag, maybe even a little correct when they lost. Even the tedious, exacting heartbreak of loving a team that disappoints you can feel sublime (or at least sublime-adjacent) if you practice it enough. A curse is still a kind of magic, after all.

So what happens when that curse starts to break? Five days after Game 7, I still can’t stop thinking about Kawhi Leonard saying he reserves big displays of emotion for situations he has never experienced before. The Shot was a very specific kind of paradox: an event for which there was both a very clear precedent and also no precedent at all, executed by a player completely unburdened by the weight of the past that brought both him to his team and his team to this moment, a man whose style and personality have suffused the familiar Raptors narrative with something very, very new.

(There are still people who somehow think, even after that shot and the year that preceded it, that Kawhi’s game “lacks charisma” — that it’s just smooth calm and sound fundamentals all the way down. But the longer he’s a Raptor, the clearer it seems to me that there’s something taut and charged running under the surface of his playing style that most of us still don’t quite know how to read, let alone talk about properly — like a colour that vibrates just outside the visible spectrum.)

And yet we still can’t help but process this strange, unique moment in the franchise’s history through symmetry, lining up the past and the present again and again. At the bar on Sunday, in the exact second the ball left Kawhi’s hands, a guy next to me screamed “VINCE CARTER, BRO!” at a frequency so intense I thought my glass was going to break. Later, on TV and Twitter, I saw the shot played split-screen against all the things that it simultaneously was and was not like: Vince Carter, bro!; the uncannily similar game-winning shot Kawhi made against the Blazers back in March; Michael Jordan’s famous playoff buzzer-beater, on and on.

Obviously, some of this is just built into the way we talk about basketball; so much of sports commentary is about comparison. But I think there’s something else going on here, too. I’ve said before, on this very website, that the city of Toronto doesn’t always seem to know what to do with its own past. Our civic self-regard swings wildly between two poles — Toronto vs. Everybody vs. Toronto vs. Itself — and all around the city, in both public and private spaces, you can feel a palpable tension between the desire to erase history and the impulse to just ignore it entirely.

Somewhere in the cascade of reactions to Sunday’s game, I saw a picture of an intimate moment between Leonard and Kyle Lowry juxtaposed against a photo of a sombre embrace between Lowry and DeMar DeRozan during (presumably) a doomed game. Then, just a few tweets down, I watched a reporter ask a glowing Lowry, fresh off the floor, where he was in 2001 when Vince Carter failed to hit that shot, the one that wasn’t this one. “That don’t matter,” he said, “I’m here now.”

He was right, of course, and his performance in Game 1 against the Bucks was proof (if nothing else) of his desire to forge ahead into a different kind of future, for real this time. Even though it ended with a loss, I couldn’t help but feel like the emotional texture of that whole game was different than almost every other Raptors playoff loss I’d ever seen. The defeat seemed less inevitable, less deflating, more like the kind of thing that could happen to any team coming off a tiring series and playing very good opponents on their turf. Whatever kind of stress I felt while watching it, that familiar twinge of psychic dread — the hall of mirrors, the narrowing range of possibility — was conspicuously absent. The Raptors don’t need to win this series to make it hopeful; all they need to do is put up a credible fight. They can play a longer game now, if they want: they can build a real future, a new one, reconciled with the past and apart from it all at once. An example for the rest of us, if they can pull it off.