The record the Raptors broke against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday afternoon — the largest comeback in franchise history — was last set when DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani were teammates in the North. That team finished finished 22-60. This Raptors team is already 21-8.
Down 30 points midway through the third quarter against the Dallas Mavericks, the Toronto Raptors put Scotiabank Arena into a frenzy during a maniacal 47-21 fourth quarter that hearkened back to some of Toronto’s most classic playoff wins. When the screaming died out and the clock switched off, the Raptors had won 110-107. The engine of the comeback was Lowry, who scored 20 points alone in the fourth.
“For us it was just follow the leader,” said Chris Boucher of Lowry’s importance.
“I don’t know about everyone else, but when Kyle made a three on the right wing, I had like a vibe or a feeling…” said Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. “I kind of had that vision for Kyle taking off and that’s what happened.”
“I knew we were coming back.”
That the Raptors had such a deep hole out of which to climb was perhaps a problem. It took a long time for Toronto to find balance on the offensive end. There’s a reason why scales in cartoons take cartoonishly long times to settle in the middle; balance is a difficult thing to find. For the Toronto Raptors, it took three quarters of dreary failure for them to finally hit that sweet spot. But when they did, the lunacy of their comeback was worth it.
Nick Nurse was explicit before the game that he wants his bench guys to be paint-by-numbers guys, more followers than leaders, when it comes to the offensive end. He wanted his bench to contribute around the edges of Toronto’s primary guys, namely Fred VanVleet and Lowry.
“We just gotta make sure we get that right blend,” said Nurse before the game. “[The bench guys] are all capable. But I don’t want seven possessions in a row where they’re shooting seven straight shots. They’ve gotta be a little bit more opportunity guys than maybe they have been in some games.
The right blend of offense between starters and bench, primary and fringe scorers, is something of a promise. It’s a promise that bench players will listen to the coach and stay in their own lanes. Nurse has punished players in the past for stepping outside of the minimal box that is a bench role on the Raptors. But the correct blend also necessitates a promise from the main guys that they’ll carry the lion’s share. If they’re going to play the big minutes, create the most plays, and take the most shots, that has to translate to points. For three quarters, the offensive leaders didn’t fulfill their promises.
Lowry and Fred VanVleet seemed to miss every jumper they took, and the team took its cues from those misses. Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby, who should have provided Toronto’s secondary sources of offense, were also ineffective. Ibaka had trouble creating good looks in the post, and he missed the majority of his spot-up jumpers as well. He finished with six points on three-of-11 shooting, which was a far cry from his level of dominance over the last two games. Anunoby missed his open triples, and his drives were frequently off-balanced and resulted in turnovers. He finished with six points and three turnovers.
The balance that Nurse sought between the starters and the bench was lacking in the first three quarters.
There were some fun elements in the first three quarters against the Mavericks. Pat McCaw was Toronto’s choice as the primary defender of Kristaps Porzingis, and he was brilliant. Porzingis is not a big on the offensive end, and his height means almost nothing. He whiffed on his screens, couldn’t create space in the post, and generally moped around when McCaw was guarding him. It was a great display of defensive diversity from McCaw, who also shot well, drove well, and was one of Toronto’s most pleasant surprises. Terence Davis threw some nice passes, which is a solid development as Toronto transitions him into a ball-dominant guard. Boucher had some impressive blocks, as always. Though the fun things were fun, they weren’t nearly enough to outweigh the Raptors’ lack of offensive punch.
Then everything changed in the fourth quarter. A lineup of Lowry, Terence Davis, Malcolm Miller, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Chris Boucher went on a 41-15 run over the brunt of the quarter, pulling the game within reach. That group includes three minimum salary players, all of whom were undrafted, one second draft scrap heap player, and Lowry. As always while playing with low-expectation, high-energy groups, Lowry was unbelievable. The offense was simple: give the ball to Kyle Lowry and let him do cool stuff.
He hit step-back jumpers, turned hesitation dribbles into and-one floaters, and of course hit pull-up triples in transition. He represented, on this night, the absolute peak of ref-arguing, charge-taking, post-stripping, basket-scoring, teammate-boosting, breath-taking, jumper-making, foul-baiting basketball. It was peak KLOE, both new and nostalgic, and for the first time this year but the millionth as a Raptor, he wrote and re-wrote our experience of his brilliance. Lowry finished with 32 points, 10 assists, and eight rebounds.
“He was unbelievable, right? And he really didn’t have that good a game going until that point, too. Then he started firing and making and driving and and-one-ing, he was doing it all,” said Nick Nurse.
“I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it.”
If Lowry was the frontman, Boucher was the showstopper. His incredible length and tenacity forced plenty of turnovers as Toronto used a full-court press to start the fourth quarter. When the Mavericks didn’t turn the ball over and got the ball into the half-court, the Raptors reached and scrambled and played like lunatics. They collapsed into the paint and figured out the rest from there.
“We just kept saying anything but the rim,” said Nurse. “If the ball started heading to the rim we just wanted to swarm it and make ‘em kick out and then try to do our best to get back out there.”
If they kicked it out, the task usually fell to Boucher to clean up the mess. He attacked Dallas’ shooters without hesitation. His pterodactyl arms blocked a corner jumper into the upper stratosphere, and he did a good job frightening shooters after that with his maniacal closeouts.
“Yeah, it is [unique],” Nurse said of Boucher’s closeouts. “I think they were such good plays because he was protecting the rim first. He was in there waiting, looking looking looking, and then he saw an opening, and he made a long run, and he jumps early on those. That’s how he gets a piece of [those shots]. He played a hell of a game. Hell of a game.”
Boucher finished with a career-high 21 points, seven rebounds, two steals, and four blocks.
If anything, the incredible performance of Toronto’s bench mob wasn’t so much an execution thing as an identity one. Missing so many key players, the Raptors do not have enough talent to coast through games. They’ve always been at their best this year when forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. Toronto’s bench doesn’t have the talent of the stars, but they can never be accused of trying too little. They get up on the ball, make wild decisions, and junk it up. The resulting chaos was the backdrop to Toronto’s miraculous comeback.
Despite the heart-warming victory, Toronto will remain in the trenches for the next few weeks without three of its five most important offensive players. To win, they have to lock in on defense, play ugly and slop it up, and have their ball-dominant guards catch fire from deep. Those were negotiable elements when Toronto was healthy, as a Pascal Siakam explosion or Norm Powell spree could offset any problems in a blink of an eye. But Toronto doesn’t have that room for error any longer. It took a miraculous comeback, sparked by the best game of Boucher’s NBA career, and a vintage KLOE game, for Toronto to win. They can’t always rely on such unpredictable elements.
“No, I think that was a one-off game, but you could see how hard we played, and that’s something you take from and you continue to build on, the how hard we played,” said Lowry.
The Raptors are 2-0 since Pascal Siakam, Norm Powell, and Marc Gasol were injured in the same game. Toronto just keeps winning. The factors that have informed those wins may not be repeatable in the future, but that the Raptors have won is almost unbelievable. With the second leg of the back-to-back tonight against the Indiana Pacers, the Raptors will need to make the unsustainable into a regularity to continue its most unlikely hot streak of the season.