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Bruce Arthur: LeBron James is just a travelling circus to Toronto now

Bruce Arthur: LeBron James is just a travelling circus to Toronto now
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It used to be that if you were any good around here, eventually LeBron James was all that really mattered. He had pushed the Toronto Raptors down the rebuilding path once upon a time, back when Chris Bosh left, and once the Raptors got good enough to aspire to something, three straight years, they found the king. He came to delight in destroying them. It was like he thought there were points for artistic merit.

And Thursday night LeBron returned to Toronto as a Laker, and … he doesn’t matter much at all, not right now. The Raptors are worried about the pending bloodbath in the East playoffs, about making sure the practice facility is Drake-branded, about getting healthy and in sync. The Lakers are pretty much out of the playoffs, and nobody outside Los Angeles worries about LeBron for much more than a day at a time anymore. It’s so strange.

“Obviously, we ve lost a lot of hours of sleep over the years against this guy,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who had been an assistant here the previous five years.

They did, and LeBron is one of the biggest reasons the Raptors are where they are now. But after tormenting this franchise for three years, and losing twice in the final to Golden State, LeBron decided to semi-retire to Los Angeles. With three championships and all-time greatness in his pocket, he chose Hollywood and weather and a place to raise his kids, and the hope that the Lakers could add some other stars in his sunset years.

“There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have,” said LeBron to reporters in Boston, back before the trade deadline. “Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake. I love the process of everything I go through to be able to compete every single night and put teams in position to compete for championships. But there’s nothing I’m chasing, or feel like I need to end my career on.”

Then his buddy Rich Paul failed to extract Anthony Davis from New Orleans, and the leaks crushed all the young Lakers who were said to be in trade talks. The Lakers were fourth in the West when LeBron suffered the first major injury of his career, a groin strain. He passed Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list last week and he seemed to be the one guy in the building who really cared. He is chasing Kareem’s all-time games played and scoring records, but he’s doing it chained to a bad team, like a great actor chained to a box-office bomb.

And it’s weird, right? It’s weird. Other than Masai Ujiri, maybe Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, nobody has done more to shape the franchise’s direction. He tortured them until they broke. Winning Game 5 in 2016 with the series tied and saying, “I’ve been a part of some really adverse situations, and I just didn’t believe this was one of them.” Casually spinning the ball before drilling threes, or pretended to drink a beer during a game during the second-round sweep in 2017. That year Lowry said, “I know I’m not a LeBron, and DeMar’s not a LeBron.” And DeRozan said, “If we had LeBron on our team, too, we woulda won.”

And then last year. Toronto was really good, and Cleveland insiders speculated that the Cavaliers would bow out gracefully.

But 2018 was LeBron’s Sistine Chapel of torment, and Toronto’s Mona Lisa of despair. When Nurse thinks of it now he doesn’t get beyond the last-possession choke in Game 1, and all those misses. But in Game 2 the Raptors scouting report said to force LeBron into mid-range jumpers, and LeBron took them: turnarounds, off the dribble, swaying and splashing, over and over. He said afterward, “Two points ain’t two points. That’s a lie. Two points is not two points.”

What he meant was, you can’t beat me, no matter what you do. On his nationally syndicated ESPN radio show, Dan Le Batard cackled, “He’s laughing at them. It looks like so much fun for everybody involved except the Raptors.”

LeBron hit the running bank shot in Cleveland to win Game 3, and team president Masai Ujiri had to be separated from his coaching staff as he yelled about being tired of excuses. The seven-day sweep was the start of coach Dwane Casey being fired, and DeRozan being traded.

“It was tough,” said Nurse. “I just think that we thought we were better than they were or at least would play them better than we did, so that made for extra tension.”

Maybe Raptors fans should thank him. LeBron was the gatekeeper to greatness, and he let the Raptors know just how much they didn’t measure up. DeMar brought back Kawhi Leonard, and Kawhi might even stay. Toronto will battle the Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid, or Boston and Kyrie Irving, or Milwaukee and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the playoffs will be a different kind of hell. Maybe this time, they can do it.

But they’ll do it without LeBron looming over them, lording over them, standing in the way. There is still a thrill when he walks into the building; he still gets cheered, even here. He is still LeBron James, great as ever, a Los Angeles Laker. Martin Amis once coined the phrase, the strange obscurity of stardom. And that is about right.
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