Sometimes, things can get momentarily lost in the shuffle of another Stephen Curry explosion and a vintage Kobe Bryant performance, but that doesn't mean they should get lost entirely. As such, we take a moment to offer praise and recognition to Kyle Lowry, who went nuts in the fourth quarter on Wednesday night in a fashion that merits respect even in a post-Steph landscape:
Lowry scored 22 points in the fourth quarter on Wednesday, setting a new Raptors franchise record for single-frame scoring to erase the Atlanta Hawks' nine-point lead after three quarters. Behind Lowry's persistent attacking (he earned eight free throws in the final quarter, making seven), strong shot-making (he also went 7-for-8 from the floor, including a big pull-up triple that put Toronto up five with 5:08 remaining) and timely table-setting (he leveraged all the defensive attention he was drawing into a pair of lob feeds turned into alley-oop dunks by Brazilian big man and former Hawk draftee Lucas "Bebe" Nogueira), Toronto came all the way back from a deficit that reached 17 points in the third quarter, pulling away from a stunned Hawks squad late to earn an impressive 96-86 win at Philips Arena.
"I just think he’s relentless," Hawks center Al Horford (12 points, nine rebounds, two blocks in 32 minutes) said after the game, according to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He kept attacking. He kept making plays for his team."
The Raptors point guard outscored Atlanta by himself, 22-20, in the final frame on Wednesday, igniting Toronto to 39 points on 73.7 percent shooting in the fourth quarter after a sluggish start that saw the Raps manage just 32 points on 34.2 percent shooting in the opening half. He finished with a game-high 31 points on 9-for-17 shooting with five rebounds, five assists, two steals and just two turnovers in 37 minutes on the ball for the Raptors, who have now won five of their last six to improve to 12-7 on the season, including an impressive 8-5 mark on the road in a tough early-season slate that's seen Toronto spend most of its time away from the friendly confines of the Air Canada Centre.
"I just attacked early and tried to get to the basket early," Lowry said after the game, according to George Henry of The Associated Press. "They're not really big-time shot-blockers, and I just wanted to attack the basket."
As if it wasn't impressive enough already, Lowry's furious finish came amid flu-like symptoms that forced him to leave the floor at one point. Not sure we'll remember it as his "Flu Game" in 20 years, but still, a heck of a feat for a guy to crank up his level of play that much while feeling that ragged because his team needed it that much.
“Kyle was sick at half time,” head coach Dwane Casey said after the game, according to Donnovan Bennett of Sportsnet.ca. “We were worried we wouldn't have enough to go. He found a way, he was a soldier down the stretch and found a way to win.”
“Kyle took over,” [DeMar] DeRozan said. “I told him: ‘Win the game for us.’”
Lowry obliged, despite having to make an emergency run to the washroom in the third quarter.
Asked how he was feeling at the time, Lowry quickly replied: “Like sh--, but it’s a basketball game, you get two halves, and my teammates always count on me. So I went out there and left it on the floor tonight.”
He had some help, with reserve Cory Joseph once again joining him in a two-point-guard lineup that gave Raptors coach Dwane Casey the double-dose of ball-handling, penetrating and shooting that he often enjoyed when Greivis Vasquez used to share the floor with Lowry, but with the added benefit of cranked-up defensive acumen and effort. Joseph finished with 10 points, four assists, two steals and zero turnovers in 33 1/2 minutes.
With Lowry and Joseph breaking down the Hawks' defense in the pick-and-roll game, the 23-year-old 7-footer Nogueira — drafted 16th overall by the Boston Celtics in the 2013 NBA draft; shipped to the Hawks in a draft-night swap that landed Kelly Olynyk in Boston, Shane Larkin with the Dallas Mavericks, and Bebe, Jared Cunningham and Mike Muscala in Atlanta; then sent north of the border with Lou Williams two summers ago for John Salmons — had plenty of room to dive to the basket, creating those two big dunks.
The sparingly used big man, who has battled myriad injuries for much of his NBA tenure, impressed in his first extended action since being recalled from the D-League following the shelving of starting center Jonas Valanciunas, scoring four points with seven rebounds and one block in 16 1/2 minutes, during which the Raptors outscored the Hawks by a whopping 22 points. More from Wolstat of the Sun:
“Like I tell all the young guys, be ready,” Casey said of Nogueira. “He was ready.”
Said a grinning Nogueira: “Maybe a lot of guys are surprised, but not for me, because every day I work so hard for a chance like tonight.”
More often than not, a young project big man like Nogueira gets a "chance" at those fourth-quarter minutes because his team's either up big or down big. On Wednesday, though, his screen-setting and defensive activity helped catalyze a Toronto comeback made possible by Lowry, who entered this season in tremendous shape and eager to not only build on a 2014-15 campaign that saw him earn his first All-Star berth — and as a starter, to boot — but to wipe clean the bad taste of a tough finish to the season that saw both him and his Raptors sputter down the stretch, eventually getting swept in the opening round of the playoffs by the Washington Wizards. So far, so good.
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Lowry's averaging a career-high 21.3 points per game, 16th in the league. He's shooting a career-best 41.2 percent from 3-point range on a career-high 6.9 long-range attempts a contest. He's getting to the foul-line a career-high 6.3 times per game, connecting at an 88.3 percent clip. He's assisting on a slightly lower share of his teammates' buckets during his time on the floor and turning it over a bit more frequently than he did last season, but he's also using a higher share of Toronto's possessions than he did last season and doing more with them. He's also been an important part of the Raptors' hoped-for defensive improvement, leading the NBA in steals while holding his individual assignments to a collective 40.8 percent shooting mark, according to SportVU player-tracking data.
Pick your catch-all advanced stat of choice, and there's a decent chance it loves Lowry's impact on the game this season. He's 13th in the league in Player Efficiency Rating, just below scoring monster James Harden and rebound devourer Andre Drummond. He's third — as in one, two, three — in Value Over Replacement Player and Real Plus-Minus, behind only Curry and Russell Westbrook. He's top 10 in Win Shares, Wins Produced and Estimated Wins Added. The Raptors are decimating opponents with him on the floor, outscoring the competition by a robust 8.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool, and they fall off a cliff when he sits, getting outscored by 8.6-per-100; in essence, Lowry's presence has been the difference between Toronto playing like the NBA's third-best team and its third-worst.
After eight up-and-down NBA seasons, Lowry blossomed into a full-fledged All-Star last season. He's been even better this season — perhaps the East's best guard through the season's first six weeks, as SB Nation's Jesus Gomez convincingly argues — and has put himself in line for a second-straight All-Star nod when the game heads to The 6 this February. It's something few could have predicted, it's been tremendous to watch, and — even on a night where the game's brightest stars shined — it's worth making sure we take a moment to celebrate.
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