Kyle Lowry was exhausted and emotional after Friday’s loss, declining to speak with media for the first time all season as a result. On Saturday, he missed practice due to an illness that threatened to keep him out of Sunday’s game. With DeMar DeRozan and Patrick Patterson also sitting, though, Lowry opted to tough it out. Naturally, he was cut by a stanchion camera early on and would require four stitches in his right arm. Of course, these circumstances only sometimes matter, and in fact seem to spur him on at times.
Such was the case Sunday, when not Lowry turned in a virtuoso performance despite the constraints of illness or fatigue and despite the absence of his 3-point shot. Lowry was magnificent, at times willing the team to larger leads and gripping firmly to prevent them from slipping away. It’s not really a terrific Lowry performance without the element of obstacles, and so it made sense that the better Lowry played, the longer the Nets hung around.
It mattered little in the end, beyond extending the point guard to 39 minutes once again. That fact is probably cause for major concern given the pattern it is a part of and with the Raptors set for their fifth game in seven days on Monday, but there is at least the glimmering light of rest up ahead. In this case, with the Raptors reeling so plainly, hurting so obviously, and showing cracks so openly, maybe it’s worth looking past. Yes, it was “just the Nets,” as it was always going to be, but it was also a victory, one the Raptors seemed to need pretty badly. It’s been a long time since the players on the team spoke as openly about being at a loss, about their inability to rediscover their footing, about genuine concern about their play. Having dropped 13 of 21, eight of 10, and two in a row, the Raptors kind of just needed a win, however they got there.
How they got there was Lowry putting up a 15-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist triple-double, the ninth of his career and his seventh as a Raptor. (That he has seven of the 19 triple-doubles in franchise history seems fitting.) This wasn’t the singular scoring dominance he’s flashed in some 30-point outbursts this year, when the gravity of his deep threes stretches and snaps a defense, or when his forays into forests of arms near the rim somehow continue to produce and-ones. Instead, this was one of Lowry’s craftier performances, one that saw him hit a few sneaky shots, throw a couple of incredible passes, and generally keep a high-effort Nets defense in disarray, constantly unclear of when to switch and whom to follow. Lowry was Nashing the pick-and-roll in semi-transition, throwing lobs for his big men, threading bounce passes to the roll-man, and setting up (mostly unwilling) shooters.
This was the height of “you have to really watch Lowry to appreciate his dominance” games, and while the Raptors actually managed to outscore the Nets when he was off the floor, there’s little chance Toronto closes this out without him. And, in fact, it seemed like at one point they may try in the fourth, but Brooklyn quickly punched back. Brooklyn punched back often, actually, with their high-variance, triple-heavy approach letting them make a couple of quick comebacks that a tight and perhaps tired Raptors rotation struggled to contain. The Raptors defended well enough on the whole, to be clear, and even 13 threes still saw the Nets score just 96.5 points per-100 possessions, but there were a few troubling comeback runs and definitely the threat of a stolen game late. But again, it wouldn’t be a peak Lowry performance without every last ounce of potential adversity.
Lowry did not do it alone, though, and the players who stepped up to help him are not only worthy of recognition given the team’s thinned-out top-half here, but they’re performances worth noting in a more macro sense because, for a few players, regardless of quality of opponent, this was the kind of game people have been asking for. That scoring punch off the bench in the typical sixth-man role, heating up quickly and adding secondary playmaking? That was Terrence Ross, who poured in 17 quick points in 26 minutes and probably should have been fed even more when Lowry sat. Meeting the challenge of Brook Lopez on the opposite side and asserting himself as a serious post-up and dive threat? That was Jonas Valanciunas, who had one of his best two-way performances of the season – his defense has trended upward the last couple of weeks – in outscoring Lopez 22-20 in fewer minutes. Valanciunas shook off some early foul trouble and what appeared to be a stinger to his shoulder later and was a beast setting screens and rushing hard through the paint. And those Lowry-less lineups that succeeded? Look in part to Fred VanVleet, who for a second game in a row took Cory Joseph’s spot in the rotation and delivered a solid, steady performance. He shot 2-of-10, but he also got to the line a handful and dished some smart, creative passes for teammates (including Lucas Nogueira, with whom he’s formed a quick chemistry). DeMarre Carroll had a really nice two-way game, too.
Things weren’t perfect. If they were, the Raptors wouldn’t have won by just eight, and the game wouldn’t have come down to somewhere near the wire (even if the latest threat wasn’t all that legitimate). With Patterson out, Dwane Casey trimmed the rotation, with Jakob Poeltl and Jared Sullinger sharing the ninth-man role that was abandoned fairly quickly. Pascal Siakam started and played as well as could be hoped, but Patterson’s absence is felt throughout the rotation, and tightening it, while making sense, is risky given the compressed schedule they’re playing under right now. There’s also the fact that VanVleet being ahead of Joseph isn’t exactly the best-case scenario, that the Raptors needed to task Lowry with such a load while ill, that the team-wide shooting slump persists, and that despite all of these strong performances that they still narrowly beat the Nets.
This win does not take them out of the woods, or anything close to it. As I quoted before the game, “It won’t get better, that doesn’t mean it’s gonna get any worse.” The Raptors beating the Nets without two of their most important players kept things from getting any worse, and that’s definitely important and meaningful right now. They can build on it. They can exhale. They can fly home Sunday with a bit of the weight off their shoulders. Monday will come quickly, though, and the Clippers won’t be nearly as forgiving. For a day, though, this is what they needed.