On a court with one of the best players of all time and one of the top-five players in the NBA, the Toronto Raptors had the best player in the game – one who doesn’t figure in any of those kinds of lists — and he made sure they won.
It’s not supposed to work like that.
The Los Angeles Lakers easily conform to the idealized profile of an NBA championship contender. They are built around LeBron James who remains either the best or second-best player in basketball even at age 35 and in his 17th season and he is ably supported by Anthony Davis, perhaps the most versatile big man in the sport and a fixture in the league’s MVP conversations over the years.
Players of that pedigree aren’t supposed to yield to the Kyle Lowry’s of the world, the good but (in theory) not necessarily great. Brains and hustle – Lowry’s v-cards — aren’t supposed to be a match for talent and size and skill and a whole slew of other attributes.
But as the Toronto Raptors finally got their chance to restart their championship defence after going 145 days between games in the 2019-20 season, Lowry proved once again that basketball convention is no match for all the different ways he can affect a basketball game and lead a team.
In the marquee game of the third day of play at the NBA’s quarantine bubble at Walt Disney World Resort, Lowry and the Raptors sent a message that reverberated around the campus shared by 21 other teams:
Overlook the champs at your own peril.
Lowry’s play was yelling it loudest. The six-foot-one point guard led all scorers with 33 points, led all rebounders with 14 and chipped in six assists as the Raptors pulled away from the Lakers in the fourth quarter of what had been a tense, taut game for the 107-92 win.
James heard it and sounded the bell:
“It’s a great team, no ifs, ands or buts. Exceptionally well-coached, championship DNA, you can never take that away from a ball club,” the Lakers star said. “They’ve won a championship and even before that they have playoff tested guys – that’s just a great team. The media might not talk about them much or give them credit because Kawhi is gone but players in the league definitely know what type of team they are.”
Still, labelling the significance of the second-place team in the East knocking off the first-place team in the West is one job Lowry wants no part of. That’s for others.
“We go out there and play the game,” Lowry said when asked if the high-profile win was a ‘statement game’.
“Every game we’ve played, and I’ve said this for the last however many years, these regular season games are only preparing you for the long haul. We understand the opportunity we have, we understand the situation, we understand (what) we need to do, what we have to do. Take it one game, one day at a time and just continue to get better for the long term. Stay level-headed, level-minded no matter what.”
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The message Lowry was most determined to share was continuing to bring attention to racial issues and steps needed to unravel them – everything from the need to vote in support of anti-racist leaders and to focus on education reform; the slogan Lowry wore on his No. 7 jersey.
Winning an important game — in addition to firing a shot over the bow of the Lakers and the other championship contenders it moved the Raptors four games ahead of the Boston Celtics for second-place in the Eastern Conference standings with seven seeding games remaining — served a double purpose as it gave Lowry an opportunity to keep the social justice messages that matter to him front and centre.
“It’s big for me, to have an opportunity to go out there and play basketball and have an opportunity to go out here and spread our social messages that we have, Black Lives Matter,” he said. “[To] go out there and talk about voter suppression. Those are the things that are getting me going right now, education reform, worrying about getting justice for Breonna Taylor. These things are all things that are getting me going and have me out there doing the best I can.”
The Raptors were looking like the team a lot of experts think they are around halftime: tough, tenacious but probably not good enough.
Toronto got off to a quick start and led 13-0 before the game was five minutes old. But the Lakers punched back with a 12-4 run of their own and in a battle between the NBA’s second and third-highest rated defences, each team struggled to score.
The Raptors led 24-21 at the end of the first quarter and trailed 44-41 at the half.
But the Lakers had James and Davis. It seemed only a matter of time.
Instead it was Lowry who broke out, going off for 12 points on five shots in the third quarter as the Raptors briefly opened up a double-digit lead with a 22-3 run and then adding 10 more in the fourth quarter as the Raptors held off a Lakers rally and closed on a 24-8 run that was as sparked by a Lowry triple when the score was tied 80-80
Meanwhile, the Lakers superstar were stifled by a swarming, multi-pronged Raptors defence. James finished with 20 points on 15 shots – modest totals for him while Davis, averaging 31.4 points over his past four starts, was largely erased as the Raptors limited him to 2-of-7 shooting although his nine free throws pushed him up to 14 points. The Lakers — who rank fourth on offence — were held to 35 per cent shooting and forced into 18 turnovers, four by James who was minus-20 for the game.
Lowry outscored the two Lakers stars combined while stepping in to draw charges and throwing his body around to chase down rebounds.
It’s an example of why Raptors head coach Nick Nurse wants his team to follow Lowry’s lead even more than they already do.
“I think it does rub off and they play a little harder,” Nurse said. “I would like them to really copy him more though. Really block out like he does and take more charges and all that kind of stuff. They do play with a good amount of energy and effort and connectivity because of him out there doing it and directing traffic and such but I’d say I wish they really emulated him [more] on some stuff… if that makes sense?”
It makes perfect sense and it’s a hard act not to follow. Lowry’s going to keep doing it until there are no more games left, habits that have accumulated over 14 seasons and were rewarded with a title that has confirmed a leadership style that is about pushing forward, focussing on the task and not getting swept up by what others say or expect.
“[I] understand that there’s going to be some ups and downs and there’s going to be big waves and some low waves and there’s going to be some smooth sailing,” Lowry said.
“[You] just got to be able to ride the wave, no matter what it is. If it’s a high moment, you just stay even, just try to say to yourself ‘stay even minded and level headed ‘and that’s what we continue to do, that I continue to do.
“I take that approach every single day and I think that’s where I’ve become a better person and a better man, a leader.”
And on the Raptors first game back after the hiatus, the best player on the floor.