TORONTO — Nursing a one-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, the Toronto Raptors were staring their own demons in the face. 10 straight series prior to this one had opened with a Game 1 loss, and here was a chance to end it once and for all against a Washington Wizards team that swept them at the same stage three years ago.
A bench unit led by Fred VanVleet wasn’t an option on this night due to a bruised shoulder, and after five uninspiring minutes from Norman Powell in the first half, head coach Dwane Casey needed to find a new solution.
Instead, he turned to a tried and tested one from seasons past that involved trusting the guy who faced the biggest demons of them all.
Kyle Lowry’s playoff history has been well documented. Put kindly, His post-season reputation has failed to match the exploits of his last few regular seasons. The 32-year-old has struggled to make shots, struggled to keep up on the defensive end, and struggled to fight through fatigue.
A secondary unit propped up by Lowry did yeoman’s work in the regular season. Backup guards were no match for the four-time all-star, and the backups around him thrived off his shooting, defence, hustle and heart. In short, the full K.L.O.E. effect.
As rare a sighting as that version of Lowry has been in the playoffs, though, the sense of anticipation as he took off his warmup jacket and checked into the game to start the fourth was palpable. Like a priceless gift once lost, only to be found again. Lowry plus bench was back, and it was beautiful.
The first 90 seconds were ominous, as the Wizards scored four straight points to take the lead. Everything that happened thereafter made you realize it was merely a settling in period.
First came the Lowry spacing effect. C.J. Miles deserves credit, too. One of the biggest benefits for the bench players when accompanied by their starting point guard is spacing. Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl don’t have much of a reputation as outside shooting threats, which makes the objective of staying at home on shooters like Lowry and Miles that much more imperative.
Here, the attention paid to Miles presents him with an easy decision to pass to Poeltl. The rest is courtesy of Bradley Beal’s decision-making. He should be shifting over as soon as the pass inside is made, but the threat of Lowry — in playoff form or not — makes him stay home. Siakam dunks.
This next image is a story unto itself. Lowry is at the three-point line, being defended by Mike Scott, with two seconds having come off the shot clock after a made basket by the Wizards.
This just doesn’t happen a year ago, or the year before that, or the year before that. In fact, let’s take a trip down memory lane.
It was three years ago when the Raptors lost 125-94 in Game 4 of the first round to fall victim to a Wizards sweep, looking nothing like the team that won 49 games and earned their status as favourites as the third seed in the conference.
Lowry averaged 17.8 points, 6.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds during the season while shooting what was then a career-high 38.8 per cent from three, but those numbers plummeted to 12.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists in the playoffs. That career-best three-point shooting disappeared, too, making just 21.7 per cent of his shots from beyond the arc in four straight losses.
The now four-time all-star had taken on too much during the season, carrying the team after DeMar DeRozan fell victim to a groin injury in the 16th game of the season that sidelined him for a month-and-a-half. Beaten up, broken down, and trapped at every opportunity, it was the deepest valley Lowry had seen.
Every step Toronto has taken since has been to mix and match to find the right pieces that fit. No matter the individual, though, from Bismack Biyombo to Cory Joseph, nothing changed the optics that this was a team that became completely unrecognizable when transitioning from regular season to playoff basketball. It was a story as old as their Game 1’s. Every opening loss triggering a narrative that this team didn’t have ‘it.’
Paul Pierce said so and backed it up, before LeBron James hammered home the point with six consecutive post-season wins over the Raptors by an average of 20.8 points. Call it a breaking point, an impasse, or a defining moment, the organization’s time of reckoning had arrived.
Instead of mixing and matching, Toronto looked in the mirror and deeper within themselves. The playoff woes were a virus of their own creation, and no one could purge it but themselves alone. Like a simple computer solution, they accepted that the parts were still good, it was just the system that needed changing.
More passing, more threes, less midrange jumpers, less leaning on their two all-stars like a crutch.
With an offence that established a more sustainable ecosystem, and a decision to envelop Lowry in bubble wrap with five less minutes per game over the 82, Toronto finally gave themselves their best shot at having their stars play like stars when it mattered most.
Back to the Lowry-Scott possession.
He had played 26 minutes over three quarters, and with a season’s worth of rest, Lowry was ready to run right through the wall that was Toronto’s Game 1 curse (no pun intended).
The Wizards power forward didn’t take too kindly to the aggressiveness, stiff-arming Lowry to the ground after he created an opening for a drive. A flagrant foul was called, and the Philadelphia native noted that it did change the direction of the game.
“That sequence was big for us just to kind of get the lead back and start to get a little bit of momentum, a little bit more push,” Lowry said after the game.
A little more push indeed. He forced the tempo here again, leading to a Miles three-pointer that capped a 7-0 run and forced Scott Brooks to call timeout.
When they were a little bogged down in the half-court, he had plenty of energy to attack his man off the bounce and cap a 10-0 run that gave the Raptors a 105-96 lead with 5:26 to play.
Beal is a capable defender, but had already played 35 of his 41 minutes to that point. As fate would have it, the tables have now been turned. Much like Lowry in 2015, Washington’s all-star shooting guard had to carry a significant burden this season in the absence of John Wall for 41 games.
He made just one shot in the fourth quarter, with Lowry and Wright taking the primary responsibility and Siakam guarding him on switches off pick-and-rolls.
Lowry spent time on Wall, too, and capped his stellar performance with arguably the defensive highlight of the game on one of the best transition players in the league.
The rest thing, it is good.
Good enough for the franchise’s first-ever 1-0 series lead in the first round, good enough to make a statement against a team that hasn’t lost a first-round series in the Wall-Beal era, and, perhaps, good enough to debunk the narrative that this team doesn’t have ‘it.’