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Bursting the Bubble: Emotional stakes have returned to Raptors basketball

An 0-2 deficit against the Boston Celtics has forced Raptors fans to once again grapple with the negative aspects of fandom.

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors - Game Two Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Since June 13, 2019, watching Toronto Raptors games has been a rather tranquil experience. Sure, I’d smile and high-five with a win and get a little steamed after a loss, but the emotions were never too extreme. With the pandemic-induced extension on the Raptors’ run as defending champions, I subconsciously thought this serenity was my new normal. Game 2 of their series with the Boston Celtics, however, reminded me all too bluntly of my paroxysmal nature, a commonplace feeling when I would watch my favourite basketball team play.

Game 2 started innocently enough, with a slight raise in heart rate in the first half when it became clear the Celtics would not allow the Raptors to run away with it. With each Marcus Smart fourth quarter three, however, my face got a little redder, my TV-directed outbursts got a little louder, and my previously reclining body lunged forward into a sweaty, stressed out pretzel. It was all a sudden reminder of the emotional stakes of Raptors fandom.

The Raptors’ regular season, from a purely basketball perspective, was the most enjoyable season the team has ever had, an assertion that is nearly universally accepted amongst the Toronto faithful. They were playing with house money, surpassing expectations at every turn on their way to the second seed in the Eastern Conference and their best winning percentage in history.

That success allowed off-season questions to be put on hold. In a league where fans are always forecasting their team’s next transaction, Raptors fans were able to enjoy the moment. With an uncharacteristically comfortable first-round series against the Brooklyn, grappling with any end to the season was delayed even further. The stark reality check that an 0-2 series deficit provides, however, has reminded us of the fact that 29 of 30 teams end their season in heartache.

Once again, gone are the days of untroubled viewership. The frenetic pace of the Bubble playoffs has shocked the system with the speed at which this shift to tension has occurred. Last Sunday, we were side-eying the Western Conference bracket to see how Toronto might match up with the potential representative from that side. This Saturday, the Raptors could conceivably be leaving Orlando. Six days. That’s it.

I don’t mean to write an obituary here while the Raptors still have a pulse. There is still plenty of basketball to be played. You need not look past the Eastern Conference Finals last year to see this very team defy the odds and come back to win the series from the same position — and that was with Games 3 and 4 in an actual on-the-road environment, hostile fans and all. But the Celtics have shown they will not allow it to be easy.

To their credit, Boston has had a counter for every attack by the Raptors. Pascal Siakam, Toronto’s de facto number one option, has struggled against the length and toughness of Boston’s wings. The Raptors’ other lead creators — Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, and Norman Powell — have not been able to establish a rhythm. Easy baskets have all been snuffed out by the Celtics’ concerted effort to hustle back in transition.

Still, optimism persists. Toronto’s stars are unlikely to shoot so poorly — a combined 37-of-115 from the floor and, quite glaringly, 9-of-49 from 3 — throughout the duration of the series thus far. Klay Thompson’s soul, desperate to avenge last year’s finals, should leave Marcus Smart’s body in the near future. Nick Nurse still has some coaching chops to showcase. Still, the math in play suggests the Raptors are in trouble. And if they are indeed part of the majority, not an outlier as they were against the Bucks last year, then they will be exiting the playoffs soon.

Yes, we will always have 2019 and the championship, but losing this series would not feel any less heart-wrenching because of that. Fandom has, after a brief and glorious reprieve this season, returned to the exhausting exercise that it once was. But without the lowest lows, the highs simply cannot be as high. In an ideal world, we have already experienced the bulk of the former and are ready to enjoy the latter.