In a season filled with disappointments and heartbreaks, Friday night's game against the Milwaukee Bucks might stand at the top the (ever expanding) mountain. In a match that could've seen the nine-games-below-.500 Raptors pull within a single game of the playoffs, a position only made possible by the dismal teams surrounding them in the standings, they choked. In fact, to say that the team choked probably gives the wrong impression of exactly what transpired, since it evokes images of a team that put itself in a position to win the game but then coughed it up. Instead, the boisterous crowd at the Air Canada Centre was treated to one the litany of disinterested and disaffected outputs by the home club, a squad that appeared utterly indifferent to the fact that they were relinquishing perhaps their most important game of the season, thus far. More to the point, once they've completed a four-game stretch against Orlando, Cleveland, LA and New Orleans this team, that now sits as the second-worst team in the Conference, may be fresh out of important games and will be forced to play out the string of easy matchups with the shame of knowing that they blew countless chances to have those games mean something.
This has certainly been a pattern for this team, though. After a dismal stretch of losing three in a row at home in mid-December (that coming only two wins removed from a five-loss road trip that saw Sam Mitchell axed mid-way), the team had a chance to kick off a six-game Western road trip on a high note against the Oklahoma City Thunder, at the time the worst team in the West, paving the way for a potential 4-2 trip. Of course, they lost that pivotal game against Oklahoma City, as well as a winnable conclusion to the trip against Golden State to return from the trip 2-4, instead.
Or how about the two games against Boston that followed a recent three-game win streak? The first game looked to be a total blow-out until the subs managed to bring it back within sniffing distance before they let it go in the end, while the second game was utterly winnable if this team had the kind of mental discipline to close out games and secure much-needed wins. Either win would have given the team some measure of momentum to get the season back on track after Andrea Bargnani began rounding into form, but instead they dropped both games, and then proceed to drop their two subsequent matches against Chicago and Indiana - not to mention the three games that followed to secure an embarrassing seven-game losing streak.
In each of those matches was Toronto's lone All-Star Chris Bosh. Well, 'in' is becoming a relative term when it applies to Bosh, these days. While his talent is immense and indisputable, his inability to lead this team through its struggles has become truly remarkable. Last night, like in so many games before, Bosh was completely invisible as an impact player. Superstars are meant to be the kind of players who lift their teams up when they've fallen, the kind of guys who grab the ball and score (or die trying) to get the team over the hump. Bosh has not only shown little ability to do that since the first month of the season, he's shown a lack of interest in the task for some time now. While he may be content in telling the world that now expects to be fêted with All-Star berths, his play seems to speak to a lack of understanding of what it means to actually be a 'star'. This team cannot rely on him to pull them out of a shooting slump or to close out a game down the stretch because he simply can't, or won't, do it. Instead he bobbles the ball on a catch or dribbles it off of his foot or gets blocked by Joakim Noah. In fact, only once this month has Bosh taken 20+ shots in a game (cherry-picking against Sacramento last Sunday), compared to the four times he did it in November (where he also had 19 attempts twice). This is all the more remarkable when one considers that for a long stretch this month Bosh was without Jermaine O'Neal and Jose Calderon to eat away at his attempts. He ranks 22nd in the league in FG-attempts-per-game at 16.1, behind Antawn Jamison, Al Jefferson and even bench player Jason Terry. He also ranks only two shots more per game than Andrea Bargnani this month, a measure pretty on par with his extra three minutes of game time this month. If this team is to have any hope of salvaging this increasingly unsalvageable season it's going to have to start with Bosh taking an active interest in his fate. He is going to have to start outworking his opponents as well as his own team if for no other reason than to lead by example; because why would his teammates be compelled to leave it all out on the floor if Bosh won't?
Perhaps, though, this team's actual efforts, which appear totally at random and too infrequently, aren't enough to matter in a season that's become defined by disinterest. That GM Bryan Colangelo insinuates that his roster is merely under-appreciated, rather than truly inept, has gone from mystifying to downright insulting. To hear the fans shake the walls of the ACC last night as the Raptors made their inevitable push (and subsequent inevitable letdown) forces one to realize how thoroughly these fans have been left flapping in the wind by this team. Players call them out for booing poor performances, executives rip them for criticizing the roster and the team as a whole shows no willingness to put forth the kind of effort deserved by Toronto's rabid fan base, yet still they follow. If this were a season lost to games where they simply didn't have enough in the cupboards to beat superior opponents but still went down swinging each night, one could live with that circumstance - it's what keeps OKC packing the house each night. However, this is a team that refuses swing, even in the most crucial games against the most vulnerable of opponents, and the kind of bad blood that engenders is very hard to cast out of one's system.
The Raptors fan base has supported this club through some very trying times, and there could come a time when games aren't the only thing this club stands to lose. These fans have shown a willingness to get behind just about anything, but they're only going to follow the emperor for so long before taking a good long look at who they've thrown their weight behind.