The continued struggles of Toronto Raptors All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry have been a major story of this postseason, enough so that no one thought it particularly surprising when he followed Thursday's Game 2 overtime win over the Miami Heat by practicing jumpers for several hours on the Air Canada Centre floor. Lowry professed a need to step up his performance after shooting just 30.8 percent from the field and 15.8 percent from beyond the arc in his first nine playoff games, and Saturday's pivotal Game 3 in Miami afforded him the perfect opportunity to make a major impact.
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It took him a half to get going, but Lowry provided exactly the spark the Raptors needed in a 95-91 win that opens up a 2-1 series lead and regains homecourt advantage for the East's No. 2 seed. After scoring four points in the first half on 2-of-6 shooting (and 0-of-3 on threes), Lowry put up 29 of Toronto's 48 second-half points on 9-of-13 from the field (including 5-of-5 from deep) for a much-needed star turn in response to a major injury.
It was a heartening performance for a player who had appeared to suffer a dip in confidence earlier in the series. Following a few games in which he seemed reluctant to shoot in big moments, Lowry carried the Raptors offense to counter (and then surpass) another brilliant game from Dwyane Wade. He looked every bit the two-time All-Star in what should become a signature game for the two-time All-Star.
His scoring was particularly important given that the Raptors saw center Jonas Valanciunas, easily their best player in the playoffs so far, left with a right ankle injury after a little more than three minutes of the third quarter:
Valanciunas followed his terrific Game 2 performance with another excellent first half, logging 16 points (7-of-11 FG) and 10 rebounds. He looked set to play very well in the second half, too, because his Heat counterpart Hassan Whiteside had left the game early in the second quarter with a right knee sprain:
Both players received precautionary x-rays that came up negative, but their statuses are uncertain for Monday's Game 4 and the rest of the series. Whiteside will undergo an MRI on Sunday, and his long-term availability appears to be more precarious in the aftermath of Game 3. Neither team has an adequate replacement in the rotation, and it's possible that one of the series' key matchups will be rendered irrelevant for at least a game.
The Raptors initially struggled with both teams forced into playing second-half small-ball. Down 55-42 at the time of Valanciunas's injury, the Heat managed to tie the game at 68-68 on their final possession of the period thanks to the excellence of Dwyane Wade. Scoring almost entirely in one-on-one situations, Wade put up 18 points as the Heat registered zero assists in the quarter. He continued his surprisingly strong showing from beyond the arc, as well, making both his three-point attempts (and 4-of-6 for the game) to get Miami back in the game.
It initially looked like the Heat would continue that game-tying run well into the fourth quarter. Luis Scola failed in his attempt to claim Valanciunas's spot in the rotation, committing three fouls in the first 2:31 of the period to help put the Heat into the bonus with more than 10 minutes on the clock. Yet Miami went to the line for only four attempts the rest of the way while Wade cooled off and few others stepped up to make up for it. The Heat were in the game until the final minutes, but Lowry's late-game excellence was the difference. He broke an 82-82 tie on a three-pointer with 2:05 remaining, and DeMar DeRozan buried six free throws in the final 23 seconds to put the game away.
The result puts the Raptors in a great position for what seems like the first time all postseason. At the same time, a 2-1 lead does not put the series out of reach. Lowry still needs to prove he can have two quality games in a row, DeRozan has his own struggles to overcome (6-of-17 FG, almost all of which came via dreaded mid-range looks), and Valanciunas would be a tremendous loss if he's unable to go. The silver lining to all this is that head coach Dwane Casey appeared to make a quality change Saturday when he replaced rookie Norman Powell in the starting lineup with Patrick Patterson, who added floor spacing and a bigger body to defend Joe Johnson.
For that matter, the Heat could be in big trouble if Whiteside misses any time at all. Despite his known weaknesses as a defender, Whiteside's elite shot-blocking is crucial against an offense that has struggled to score in 10 playoff games. Wade has been as clutch as ever in these playoffs, but it's tough to ask a 34-year-old to come through with such heroics every night.
It looks increasingly likely that this series will hinge on how Valanciunas and Whiteside respond to their injuries in the next few days. It's far from the most exciting way to decide a series, but these teams will take what they can get right now.
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