Gregg Popovich’s pre-game media availability was brief and testy. He criticized his questions, calling them trite and obvious. Midway through the back-and-forth, he was faced with no new incoming questions for a moment, and he used the space to laugh at the assembled media.
“Any more questions for me to give a trite-as-hell answer?” he said. Then he paused, and unprompted, brought up Toronto’s emotional and intellectual leader, Kyle Lowry. “Why is Kyle Lowry so clever?” Popovich posed as a hypothetically dumb question. No one has posed the question, and no one insisted he answer it. He obliged, regardless, by answering his unprompted Lowry-related sidebar.
“Because [Lowry] is,” Popovich said. “That’s what he does. He’s a competitive, tough-minded, physically tough guy. That’s what he is. People say, ‘Shouldn’t so and so be more competitive?’ If he were more competitive, he would be. It’s just like, ‘Make Lowry or [Manu] Ginobili less competitive.’ You can’t do it. They are who they are.”
Popovich’s point was that people are who they are, even if he said so in a roundabout way. Lowry is innately clever, and competitive, and all those good things. He is also the connecting line between past and present, between Eastern Conference afterthought Raptors and defending champion Raptors. On a night when Pascal Siakam returned from a groin injury and mostly struggled, and Norman Powell returned from a shoulder injury and thrived, it was Lowry who was the most dominant player on the court for the Raptors. He finished with 16 points and 15 assists, shouldering much of the burden of creation for his team. Lowry hasn’t just been Toronto’s institutional memory over the past decade, but against the Spurs he was the physical embodiment of Toronto’s sustained excellence into the present.
All this to say: there is respect in the game of basketball, and two men don’t need to belong to the same organization to feel it towards one another. Popovich respects Lowry, and he should. There’s disrespect in the game of basketball, too, as Popovich seemed to feel for the assembled media.
There are far more emotions inherent to the game. Toronto’s 105-104 loss to the San Antonio Spurs brought many to the forefront.
Siakam started the game on fire, hitting triples and pull-up jumpers and scoring 12 of Toronto’s first 23 points. It was elation, pure and unadulterated, felt across the stadium at his return. There was a standing ovation for his introduction to the lineup, and the ecstasy only swelled as Siakam exploded in the first quarter.
There was a swelling of collective parental pride when midway through the third quarter, Lowry dove after a loose ball, batted it out of bounds, and fell into the crowd. He got up, saw he had fallen near his son who was sitting courtside on the baseline, gave him a quick kiss, and returned to the game.
There was, yes, boredom as Nick Nurse leaned on a strange fivesome of Pat McCaw, Matt Thomas, Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Chris Boucher. Offense was almost unwatchable for the group, as they played the second-most of any Toronto lineup, but finished with an offensive rating of 61.5 in over six minutes. That group, and small variations of it, faced a Spurs zone that helped cut a double-digit Raptors lead over the second half.
There was shock when DeRozan dunked so viciously and so forcefully on top of Boucher. Boucher himself was so startled by the occasion that when, after the game, DeRozan let himself into the Raptors’ locker room to say hello to his friends, Boucher joked, “I don’t know if I should shake your hand, man.”
The dunk seemingly inspired DeRozan to take over in the second half, leading the Spurs back into the game as he dismantled Toronto’s lax defense. He finished with a game-high 25 points and was everything that every ex aspires to be when they see their former partner.
The Raptors lost their lead, and trailed by nine points with under three minutes remaining. All seemed lost. Then Toronto staged a short comeback, as Lowry, Powell, and Serge Ibaka hit back-to-back-to-back clutch triples, and the crowd stormed back to a dangerous volume. There was nothing but heartbreak at the end, though, as Pascal Siakam missed an uncontested layup with 19 seconds remaining that would have tied the game.
Of course, all of these emotions were shed like a snake’s skin as soon as the game was over, at least for the players themselves. DeRozan and Lowry shared a moment in Toronto’s locker room after the game, when Lowry, looking for privacy, asked the cameramen not to film them. Lowry and DeRozan, Siakam and Poeltl were bound together because of the game of basketball, but that bond now supersedes the game, slackens while they run and jump on the hardwood, and tightens again when the game is over. The four stood together after the game, after finishing their respective duties with the media, laughing and catching up. Four friends enjoying each other’s company. After all, despite the game of basketball, despite two friends winning, and two friends losing, Popovich was right: people are who they are. And they can be happy for their friends even if they themselves weren’t included in their friends’ success.
“I was happy for all them guys I played with,” said DeRozan of Toronto’s championship before the game. “I think every single guy on that team will tell you they had a text from me as soon as they got to their phones after, congratulating them, being happy for them. I think I talked to everybody that night they won.”
Those emotions are part of sport, inform it, and make it enjoyable and relatable to viewers. Popovich knew that, before the game, despite his patented grumpiness with the media. Lowry and DeRozan know it, too. There are countless emotions represented in the game of basketball, and even though the Raptors lost after another second half collapse, we should be glad that the Raptors, past and present, feel those emotions so strongly.