With 30 seconds left in overtime of Game 6 of the Toronto Raptors’ second-round series against the Boston Celtics, Raptors guard Fred VanVleet dribbled up the floor and turned to teammate Kyle Lowry, who was directing traffic. With Marcus Smart, the Celtics’ all-defensive wing, plastered over him, Lowry pointed a finger back at VanVleet. It makes sense, in theory: Why take on the wrath of Smart? But VanVleet drove to his left and missed a bank shot.
On the next possession, Lowry stood at the 3-point line with his arms outstretched and his hands formed in the shape of a ball, like he’s holding an invisible orb, marking the place where every Raptors fan is wishing the ball to go. Instead, it leaves Norman Powell’s fingertips and clanks off the rim.
Lowry doesn’t shoot the ball in the final three minutes, and the Raptors and Celtics go to double-overtime, where Lowry finds himself trapped without a dribble in the post against Kemba Walker with 15 seconds left in the game.
He turns, probes. Nothing.
With time running out, Lowry plants and lifts off his left leg, releasing a game-ending fadeaway while falling backward and sliding on the hardwood with his arms out in front of him like there’s a cape hanging off his back, like he’s just realized he’s a superhero.
After the game, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse confirms that none of Lowry’s post-ups were drawn up. “We used to post him a lot a couple years ago. We just haven’t done that as much anymore,” Nurse said. The Raptors weaned off individual ball dominance through the years in order to modernize their offense, but it might be the right time to look backward.
With Pascal Siakam, the Raptors’ emergent All-Star, withering on the vine, Lowry has emerged as the reason the Raptors have survived to make it to Friday’s Game 7, in which the Celtics are 2.5-point favorites at BetMGM. Only Lowry could have thrown the perfect inbound pass that landed squarely in OG Anunoby’s gut before he nailed Game 3’s winning buzzer-beater (though Lowry won’t dare take any credit for it). Lowry has led the Raptors in scoring and assists in this series, with 21.5 points on 45.3 percent shooting and 6.8 assists per game. In the 45 minutes Lowry has spent on the bench in the series, the Raptors have been outscored by 28 points. Which is to say: They get blown out without him.
This wasn’t always the case. There were times Lowry faltered in high-intensity moments. So much so that his failures inspired memes and viral videos online. Online, by the way, is now referred to as Kyle Lowry’s internet, where everyone clamors for him to have the ball on every possession down the stretch. The older he gets, the more Lowry is trusted — by fans, by teammates, by himself. It’s not a role he’s been asked to step in too much, nor is it something he has asked for — which might be why it took until this late hour, at the age of 34, leading into Game 7, for Lowry to emerge as the Raptors’ best scoring hope.
An evolving threat
Lowry documents his stitches.
After the Raptors defeated the Celtics on Wednesday, he didn’t care to talk much about his 33-point performance, his game-ending fadeaway, or really anything at all. He considers the microphone a nuisance. He spent the news conference ignoring questions he doesn’t like and admonishing a reporter for raising his hand twice. He sighs and looks down.
He tells a reporter a “dumbass question” was asked in a way that’s both playful and guarded, just slightly sinister. He is, at all times, seemingly bemused but totally aware. This is the Lowry we usually catch by accident, the guy who can, in one breath, observe the floor like an X-ray tech and direct teammates like a conductor, and in the next moment, play with Jayson Tatum’s armband with 0.7 seconds left on the clock.
Lowry’s disengaged until he’s asked about his stitches. Then his head springs up and his eyes widen. “Three stitches!”
“Three beautiful stitches,” Lowry repeats. “The doc did a great job.”
Then he pulls out his phone. “See that?” he says, finally volunteering something of himself. “You wanna see my wounds?” he asks the virtual press box. “I’m showing off my beauty scars,” he says, holding up his phone to the screen like it’s a picture of a newborn baby, toggling his wrist so all can witness the wellspring of his pride.
Lowry plied his trade by turning his body into a vessel for the things nobody else wanted to do. He loves to outwit and outwork. It meant something to him that he made the All-Star team last year despite averaging just 14.2 points per game. Asked why he thinks he needs to be pushed to dominate offensively, Lowry responds, “My role has changed so many times since I’ve been here.”
Lowry was a backup for two years in college. A backup in the NBA. Then he got to Toronto, where he was supposed to get traded again. He got scoring in where he could, often deferring to swingman DeMar DeRozan. He made the playoffs for the first time in his career in 2014, where he’s always done enough Lowry-esque things to remain a net positive, but when the moment called for a scoring-related miracle, he often looked timid, shriveled and sometimes, literally, like he’d shrunk. The size of opponents like LeBron James bothered him. Moreover, he’d never sat in this seat before. Brooklyn’s Paul Pierce famously spiked his game-winning floater attempt in a first-round Game 7 that occurred six years and multiple eons before the one that’s happening tonight.
Now, that teardrop has mostly evaporated from Lowry’s arsenal, replaced by drives with head fakes and shoulder bumps that say, “You might be bigger, but I’m stronger and smarter.” He improved with reps. His shot finally fell during last year’s playoffs. By Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the doubt and fear melted away, giving way to an onslaught of quick, contested threes to open the game and settle the Raptors’ jittery nerves.
“The roles just change year to year. I know he deferred to DeMar a lot and he deferred to Kawhi [Leonard] a lot, obviously,” VanVleet said. “I think last year’s run just cemented him a little more, where we needed him to make big plays.”
Now, VanVleet is pushing Lowry to take it a step further. “I just keep trying to pump him with confidence. He’s so unselfish, sometimes he can pass the ball and get out of the way, but we need him to do more than that and he did that in a big way [Wednesday].”
VanVleet often acts as a second Lowry on the floor. He’s a disciple that can spell Lowry’s minutes and allow him to play as a secondary ball-handler, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of Lowry’s output. The burden of Siakam’s slide has mostly fallen on VanVleet, while Lowry’s usage is the same as it was during the regular season. Lowry doesn’t need to be James Harden, dribbling out every possession, nor can the Raptors expect regular 30-point outbursts, but just enough to lubricate an offense that’s been stymied by the Celtics’ length.
Lowry has shed pounds through the years and the information-processing center in his basketball brain has expanded at a faster rate than his legs have deteriorated. His game has refined itself with age, and so it is that at the age of 34, Lowry looks sharper than ever, channeling his might, his vision — and yes, his butt — to trick his way around the bucket with the meaty precision, not only to push off on box-outs, but to put the ball in the basket. This is his moment. He just needs to step into it.
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