It was a bar fight disguised as a basketball game.
And Kyle Lowry was at his shiny, grimy, get it done best.
Who knows what Game 7 will bring. Likely more of the same.
The fallout from the Toronto Raptors double-overtime win Wednesday over the Boston Celtis was still settling in the hours after Game 6.
There was a lot going on. The Celtics are mad at the Raptors coaching staff because they think that head coach Nick Nurse was too far away from the bench – he was standing in the corner late in regulation when Boston’s Jayson Tatum threw a pass five feet past teammate Daniel Theis that would have hit Nurse in the chest had the 2020 NBA coach of the year not moved out of the way.
And there were reports of heckling from the Raptors bench when Jaylen Brown was at the free throw line with 18.9 seconds left in the first overtime.
Then there was the dust-up after the final horn when the Celtics irritant-in-residence Marcus Smart flopped against a Marc Gasol screen in a desperate attempt to get a foul and one last possession. When it appeared Raptors guard Fred VanVleet called him on it, Smart jawed right back.
Lowry dismissed all of it. It’s just basketball to him, and the tougher, scrappier and more heated, the better.
A few years ago Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star asked Lowry if he’d ever been in a fight — in a basketball game or otherwise.
Lowry turned to him with his head tilted down and his eyebrows arched and said:
“What do you think?”
It was – in retrospect – a redundant question.
Lowry’s whole career has been a fight and most of the time he’s come out on top. He’s overcome the streets of a North Philadelphia and beaten back a reputation of being tough to coach, even though he can still have his moments, such as at the end of Game 6 when he was visibly upset with Raptors head coach Nick Nurse for calling a timeout when it was Raptors ball with 0.5 seconds to play.
He’s overcome an early reputation as someone who struggled in the post-season with Toronto and he’s lasted long enough and played a high level enough that he’s getting legitimate consideration as a possible Hall-of-Fame candidate: heady stuff for a husky, 6-foot point guard taken 24th in the draft who hasn’t dunked in an NBA game for 12 seasons and who didn’t make an all-star team until his eighth season.
And now, Lowry is painting his masterpiece — even if it means rolling around on the pallet and taking everyone down with him in a big, sweaty, gooey mess.
You want to get messy? You want to throw your body around, draw a charge, dive for a steal, box players that outweigh him by 40 pounds and somehow challenge for rebounds with men nearly a foot taller?
Now you’re in Lowry’s world, where every possession counts and there are no style points.
“He’s played well, obviously,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse of Lowry’s performance against Boston. “He’s played tough. It’s a tough series. I think there’s a number of guys on both sides that have risen to the occasion from different games and different times. That’s usually how these playoffs work, so he’s competed. It’s been super competitive. We’ve had to fight really hard to stay in these games and scratch and claw our way to some wins and it’s right up his alley.”
It’s easy to forget that even in Toronto where everyone is arguing about what pose Lowry’s statue should capture when it’s inevitably mounted outside Scotiabank Arena (my vote would be for palms up, with face showing a mix of shock and wonder at the refs somehow getting the call wrong, again) he initially came off the bench behind Jose Calderon and even when fully established as an all-star and cornerstone, was never offered a full five-year contract.
The secret is out of the bag. As Lowry has lifted the Raptors to greater heights the basketball world has finally realized that while there have been some talented teammates to share the load – never more than last season when Kawhi Leonard was the headline performer – Lowry has been the constant in seven years of unprecedented success.
Lowry got some attaboys when he burst out of the gates in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to score the Raptors first 11 points and make clear to all involved that Toronto was not leaving Oracle Arena without the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
But now that the Raptors put together a better season without Leonard and now that the Raptors embody his selfless toughness above all and now that he’s been the primary barrier between his team being sent home in the second round by a very good Celtics team and forcing a Game 7 it’s all very clear to anyone paying attention: the Raptors are Lowry’s team and he will take them further than they likely have a right to go.
Players know, and after Lowry put up 33 points on 16 shots while adding eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and a blocked show rebounds in Game 6, they took to social media to give praise.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) September 10, 2020
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has been trying to figure out a game plan to shut Lowry and the Raptors down and it hasn’t really worked. Seeing him up close and poring over game film has confirmed what Stevens already knew.
“He’s an All-Star, but he might be the most underrated player in the league,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I just feel like he’s a terrific defender, he’s a terrific leader, a terrific effort player. Offensively, he puts you in a bind by getting fouled, making tough shots, and obviously, he does every little thing that helps teams win. Somehow he’s been underappreciated. The more people watch him in these settings, the more people appreciate him. He’s an amazing player, and certainly a big engine to them.”
It’s an engine that needs tuned up at times. Over his seven years leading the Raptors to the playoffs he’s had to adjust his offensive roles – from primary catalyst early on to more of a 1A alongside DeMar DeRozan to a role player orbiting around Leonard last season.
His defence, hustle and playmaking have never wavered, but this season he’s had to step up offensively with no DeRozan or Leonard to defer to and even more against the Celtics as a number of the members of the Raptors ‘by committee’ approach have been struggling.
He’s got the tools for that job too. You don’t deliver dagger turnaround jumpers or pull-up threes under the most intense pressure without some deft touch to go along with the sandpaper.
“He’s got a skill set of footwork and fadeaways and pull-ups,” says Nurse. “It’s his skills that enable him to do that. I think his skills have improved over time, too, for him. He adds a few things to the thing. He’s taking it to the rim pretty hard, bouncing (off) people and scoring. He’s got the turnaround. He’s got the pull-up. He’s got the pick-and-roll game. It’s just skills. That’s his skill set.”
Looking to score is not his first instinct and at times he’s had to have others in his ear to remind him that the Raptors need him to get buckets too. The 31 points he put up before his astonishing crosscourt pass to OG Anunoby that set up the third-year forward’s series-altering winner in Game 3 were prompted when an unknown friend (DeRozan is a popular theory) texted him to tell him to “quit waiting.”
On Wednesday night it was Fred VanVleet reminding him to look to score first sometimes.
“My role has changed so many times since I’ve been here, but it don’t matter,” Lowry said. “As long as we win games, I’m always going to ride with my teammates, whatever they need from me. At the moment, [VanVleet is] always pushing me to try to go and do more, so yeah.”
Yeah is right. And Lowry has delivered. Whatever happens in Game 7 Lowry has already put together a signature moment in a Raptors career that has already made him widely recognized as the best and most important player in franchise history.
It should be a 48-minute fight. It all sets up perfectly for him.