Title defenses are their own curious journeys. Repeats range from difficult to inevitable, threepeats push great teams to the fringes of fatigue. During the Warriors third championship run in four years in 2018, Steve Kerr and his team, cutting the collective figure of weeping tech magnates, regularly whinged about what a tumultuous time they were having, even with a sizable talent advantage over the rest of the league. When Phil Jackson’s otherwise successful Lakers squads went down, they went down hard, all four tires blowing out simultaneously in the midst of era-concluding postseason series. The 2012 Mavs punted on their title defense, letting defensive keystone Tyson Chandler walk in hopes of a future Dwight Howard signing that never came to pass. The 2009 Celtics were rolling, probably playing better than they had in 2008, until Kevin Garnett sprained his knee and missed the playoffs. The 2014 Heat got destroyed in the Finals by a Spurs squad that felt like they should have won the previous season. When you’ve reached the pinnacle of the sport, your route the following season is colored, yet definitely not determined, by that triumph.
Nobody expected the 2020 Raptors to excel. They were a pretty good team for years before Kawhi Leonard showed up in the summer of 2019, and the logic went that they would resume being pretty good without him. Enviable depth, a smart coach, Kyle Lowry steady as ever and Pascal Siakam ascending toward something like stardom. It’s difficult to prove anyone wrong during a normal regular season, let alone whatever this year’s interrupted mess was, but Toronto were about as impressive as could be, finishing second in the Eastern Conference and exuding a Spurs-ian equanimity. If there is something to be said for a laser-precise 8/10 performance, the Raptors spent October through March saying it, and so long as neither the Lakers or Clippers were going to emerge as a morale-sapping superpower, if the Bucks were not to be entirely trusted, there lingered the impression, until even this past Friday night, that Toronto could make the Finals on sheer professionalism and know-how—maybe, with some luck, win the whole thing. Strange times, the NBA’s long pause and sudden restart, have lent these playoffs a more randomized than usual feel. You could do worse, with the future a squall-obscured roadway, than putting your money on Nick Nurse and his confident crew.
You could do better, too, it turns out. Any series as close-run as Celtics-Raptors has many decisive factors that tilt it in the direction it finally ends up going, but it’s hard to see anything other than Siakam’s wire-to-wire atrocious performance—Jaylen Brown is the perfect guy to shut him down; Nurse would neither pull him nor stop feeding him the ball—as the crucial leak that sunk Toronto. He was hit and miss in last year’s playoffs, but the bad nights were obscured by Kawhi and Lowry, Serge Ibaka on a few occasions. Against Boston, his struggles were gallingly prominent: he shot 38.2 percent on nearly 16 attempts per contest for the series and had five turnovers in Game 7. By about Game 4, it became apparent that the Raps should try running their offense through literally anyone else, but Nurse stuck with Siakam, who kept plowing into Brown, pivoting and pumping five or six times before hurling the ball at the hoop like an egg at a vice principal’s window. It was stressful to watch, and didn’t work.
Siakam’s teammates couldn’t lift him, not for the four wins Toronto needed. They looked spent on Friday night, playing loose with the ball and leaning on inert isolation sets down the stretch. They were outperformed, straining themselves just to keep close to the Celtics, who were executing everything and then clanking their open jumpers. The consensus among NBA media types is that these players are more well-rested quarantined in Orlando than they typically would be flying back and forth between cities. This theory scans, it’s likely more right than wrong, but it doesn’t take into account all the life-giving hobbies and entertainments, people and small pleasures, that aren’t available to players right now. There’s more to health than sleep and exercise.
Do you feel like you have more energy than you did six months ago? I don’t. I’m depressed as hell. And I’m at home, in a city I like, not essentially living at work on a hotel campus in central Florida, jogging the same golf course every morning just to have something to do that doesn’t involve my coworkers or a computer screen. These playoffs are being staged in a laboratory, which suggests clean outcomes, but athletes are not inanimate test subjects, chemical compounds blooming from perfect math. Some of them are inevitably handling the cloistered monotony better than others; some would swallow a hundred thousand dollar fine to be able to visit a bar, catch a movie, or grill in the backyard with their family and friends. Maybe Pascal Siakam’s struggles had something to do with boredom or mental exhaustion. He wouldn’t be the only man in America feeling a little bit off his game, for reasons beyond his control.
Kyle Lowry signed off with a mixture of grief and resignation. “It’s time to leave this motherf-----,” he declared at the end of his final press conference of the season. The anguish has to be slightly muted. This defeat is not the same thing as shaking your ringless fist at LeBron for the umpteenth time. Perhaps when you’ve recently reached the summit—stepped out, in Kyle’s case, and scored the opening 11 points of a championship-clinching contest, en route to 26 and 10—it is easier to tip your cap to a worthy opponent. The Raptors could have been doubly surprising this year, but well, things didn’t shake out their way. Last time, they got all the breaks. You can’t complain.
All you can ask for is the opportunity to give the repeat a brave go. It’s always disappointing when the defending champs retool, or disintegrate due to injury or sudden decline. Toronto took two steps back when Kawhi exited, but still flourished, nearly every player on the roster improving to compensate for a loss they couldn’t totally overcome. They did their job; they’ll realize that once this fresh failure stops smarting. They might not be happy about it, but it will be good for them, in certain respects, to head home. “I been going damn near three months without seeing my kids,” Lowry admitted in his presser. There are comforts basketball can’t give you.