It’s easier to look back and think back to that empty feeling with 0.5 seconds remaining. The Toronto Raptors looked as though they had done everything they possibly could on that final defensive stand, only to miss one final rotation that Kemba Walker took advantage of with a beautiful pass to Daniel Theis for the dunk.
The season was on the line, all of it. Kyle Lowry miraculously leading a 30-point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks, the 15-game win streak, holding Joel Embiid to zero points, the emergence of Bench 905, was it all going to end like this?
Truth be told, Lowry answered that with an emphatic no right from the tip. In a performance that will go down in the pantheon of his greatest performances of all-time, that reaffirmed his status as the Greatest Raptor of All-Time, Lowry put up a colossal 31 points, eight assists, six rebounds and two steals playing all but 90 seconds of the must-win game before what could have been a must-avoid-embarrassment game.
Lowry attacked the basket with force early to score 10 of the team’s 14 points, kept the team afloat by sheer force of will when it seemed no one but OG Anunoby would be along for the ride, then delivered everything the team needed late, including a most precise pass from out of bounds over the outstretched arms of 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall and into the lap of Anunoby for a miracle 3-pointer that breathed life into the team and the series, cutting the series deficit to 2-1.
Toronto will need to get Lowry all the rest he possibly can before Saturday, but in the meantime, let’s take a closer look at how he helped keep the Raptors alive Thursday night.
Lowry in attack mode is a special kind of beast, and when he called for a screen from Marc Gasol up top, didn’t gain much of an advantage but attacked the rim with vigour for an and-1 on the first offensive possession of the game, it was a sign that Lowry would not go quietly into the night.
The Raptors’ half-court offence has been much maligned over the course of this series, and how they were going to find a way to manufacture points when they hadn’t really been able to get out in transition to this point was a major question mark.
Using Gasol and Ibaka as screeners worked extremely effectively, and the added aggression Gasol showed in looking for his shot — at least early on — gave the Celtics just a bit more to think about when defending these sets below.
Lowry’s patience was masterful to watch, understanding the timing needed to hit his centres on the roll in stride and also when to take advantage of drive opportunities. Even when there wasn’t much separation gained off a screen, Lowry took Theis’ lack of presence in the paint having been drawn out as a neon green light to be strong at the rim.
LOWRY BULLY BALL
Every game evolves differently, and while Pascal Siakam had a few opportunities to attack Kemba Walker in the last game, it was Lowry who was licking his lips in Game 3 whenever the former UConn guard was defending him.
Seeing the bounce Lowry had to his step was really encouraging, and bodes well moving forward. Just as Gasol and Ibaka being aggressive are important to the guards’ effectiveness in the pick-and-roll, the guards’ scoring is important to help create more space for Siakam to operate.
Lowry finished the night a staggering 9-of-12 within five feet of the basket. Yes, that’s your 6-foot, 200-pound point guard bringing his hard hat and doing whatever it takes.
PUSHING THE PACE
Part of resolving the half-court issues is also identifying opportunities to push the ball and Lowry did so with aplomb. There were times he was able to catch the defence on their heels and get all the way to the basket, other occasions where his push forced some switching and advantages for the Raptors, and a couple occasions where it at least created an open 3-point look for the trailer.
“I played with a lot different pace tonight,” Lowry said. “I got a text from a real close friend of mine and he kinda told me, “Stop waiting.” And that was pretty much the game plan for me tonight, to stop waiting and be aggressive from the jump. He was correct.
Just as the centres are going to be left open at the 3-point line, Lowry and VanVleet will receive their fair share of open looks in the mid-range. Protecting the rim is the Celtics’ primary objective, followed by the 3-point line.
These shots below that Lowry took from the mid-range are going to be vital in ensuring the Celtics can’t just sell out on the rim in anticipation of drives and can keep them guessing.
ALWAYS HELPING OUT
Of course, no vintage Lowry performance is complete without the spectacular defence Lowry brings to the table. While dribble penetration was an issue on some occasions, Lowry showcased just how brilliant of a help defender he can be by nullifying what should have been great looks for the Celtics on several occasions.
Part of this was enabled by changing his primary matchup, as after being tasked with the unenviable job of defending Jayson Tatum for the majority of the first two games, Lowry was aligned with Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart for the most part on this night.
In the first play below, watch how he knows that Grant Williams is the least threatening component of Boston’s five on the floor and is constantly waiting to help. When Tatum makes his move, he’s ready to fly in and make for an extremely difficult look. Play No. 5 (0:55) is one of those little Lowry plays that goes unnoticed. Gasol is forced to help on Walker after Theis’ dribble hand-off, and so instead of just sticking to Smart, Lowry presents himself at the rim to deter Theis. He settles for a jumper — he probably should have looked to pass — but it’s a little thing where if he just sticks with Smart Boston ends up with an easy two at the rim.
Plays 5, 6 and 7 are all just great examples of his ability to be there for his teammates without sacrificing the responsibilities of defending his man.
BONUS: KYLE LOWRY OVER EVERYTHING
Initially, I was going to slow this clip down and look at each moving piece but it almost does a disservice to Lowry making the read in real time. I mean, look at how quickly things transpire: Option No. 1 is VanVleet, Option No. 2 is Siakam, OK, what’s the five-second count at? Oh, there’s Gasol drawing Brown’s attention, get it to OG!
All while 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall is standing over him? Kyle Lowry is over everything and therefore sees over everything.
“I could see, actually,” Lowry said after the game. “He stepped back a little bit, I think Freddy’s hard cut kinda moved him a little bit. I didn’t see the play, I gotta see it again, but I just felt like I had good enough touch on it to get it over his hands so I’ll look at the play but I felt like he was a little bit further off. I moved back, also, to give myself some space but it was just a pass I made and the pass was nothing, OG made the shot, all the credit goes to the shot.
“That’s a tough shot, give OG that credit, the pass was just to get it to a guy like OG, that’s OG’s moment, man. That’s a great moment for that kid and I’m so happy and so proud of him, man. Don’t take away — that pass meant nothing, that shot was everything.”
Trailing by 10 at the half and staring down the barrel, Lowry refused to relent. He kept plugging away, kept chipping away and finally the floodgates opened for his teammates. After shooting 5-of-22 from 3-point range in the first half, they erupted for 8-of-18 in the second half to help force a Game 5.
Game 6 won’t happen without a carryover effect, but the Raptors would have just been trying to avoid a sweep Saturday without another all-time performance from Lowry.
“He’s obviously been such an engine for our franchise,” Nurse said. “There have been so many incredible regular season performances for him. There have been so many huge ones. You can never ever, if you’re a Raptors fan, forget the start of Game 6 in the Finals last year, ever. He came out and just gave everybody a surge of belief at the opening tip.
“And I think today, as hard as it was at times, and as frustrated as he was at times, he just kept on fighting and playing. It’s got to rank right up there.”
We are not worthy.