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2019-20 Player Review: Kyle Lowry

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Sep 9, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) shoots against Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker (8) in the second half in game six of the second round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There are certainties in this uncertain life of ours. Death and taxes are the typical answer, but also the least interesting. The sun will rise and the sun will set. Trees will grow. Kyle Lowry is that barometer for the Toronto Raptors, more phenomenon than player. That he would do the spectacular, force our hearts into our bellies, our throats, all over our bodies, was a given. Perhaps the only one in a season and life as unstable and fractured this one.

Lowry is, most of all, uncommon. There aren’t players like him, not when it comes to consistency, omnipresent impact, and singularity of performance. LeBron James, perhaps, is an obvious answer as he likely still celebrates his fourth championship. But James is a mountain of a man, a titanic combination of speed and strength perhaps unmatched in NBA history. In comparison, Lowry is tiny. He looks more like you or me. He is listed at six foot zero, and that’s generous. He is, pound for pound, as strong as anyone in the league, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him. He is fast, sure, but not in comparison to some of the evolved athletes of the league.

To make Lowry even more uncommon, he remains this good against all odds. As he ages, Lowry’s success is supposed to flee him. After all, the sun will rise and the sun will set. But for Lowry, the plunge into the sea and extended splash of orange hasn’t happened. In fact, Lowry turned 34 this year, and it was perhaps the best season of his career. Over the last several years, he has developed into one of the best passers in the league, with artful pick-and-roll feeds to the big and snap-decisions when he’s orbiting the play. He was ninth in assists per game in the league, averaging 7.5, which was, other than 2018-19 season, the best output of his career.

Unlike last year, however, Lowry acted (again) as the deadly scorer that Toronto didn’t require while employing Kawhi Leonard. Yes, Pascal Siakam was Toronto’s highest point scorer for much of the season, but in the biggest moments, Lowry eased into his role as leader. He averaged 20.7 points per game against the Boston Celtics across the grueling, seven-game series as pockmarked by defensive stringency as the Somme by artillery blasts.

And Lowry was huge when it mattered most. It was because of him, most of all, that Toronto’s title defense year was proud, if not successful, despite losing Leonard. In a win-or-go-home game six against the Celtics, across two overtime periods, Lowry played 53 minutes and scored 33 points on only 20 shots. It was perhaps the greatest game of his Hall of Fame career. He even hit a legless midrange fadeaway with under a minute on the clock to seal the win for good.

He was always present in Toronto’s biggest moments, around the edges, supporting the rest of the group. Remember OG Anunoby’s incredible buzzer beater to top the Celtics in game three? It was, of course, Lowry who threw the impossible pass over the outstretched Tacko Fall to hit Anunoby in his pocket. It was Lowry who spurred Toronto’s franchise-largest comeback victory over the Dallas Mavericks in December. He scored 32 points and played the entire final quarter, almost all alongside a traditional all-bench unit, this time composed of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, and Malcolm Miller.

Only Lowry could turn such a random lineup generator product into gold.

It was Lowry who took a charge on Kawhi Leonard in the All-Star game. It was Lowry who led the Raptors to a huge win over the champion Los Angeles Lakers in Los Angeles, scoring 33 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, which, just for fun, was only one fewer than Anthnoy Davis, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard’s combined rebound total in that game.

It was Lowry most of all who was there when Toronto had a need.

That isn’t to disrespect Toronto’s other stars. Pascal Siakam had a wonderful season until the Orlando Bubble. Fred VanVleet had a wonderful season, full stop. But neither offered the depth of play that Lowry offered throughout the season. In his 15th year in the NBA, eighth in Toronto, Lowry offered one of the best seasons of his career. His offense was pristine, and if not as forceful as his output in 2016-17, when he averaged 22.4 points per game on higher efficiency, then his offense this year was more cerebral. He knew exactly when to take control and when to blend into the scenery, allowing his teammates to run the show.

And past years’ chatter of a dip in Lowry’s defense disappeared this year. He was ferocious at the point of attack and one of the best non-center help defenders in the league. His verticality and charge-taking are stuff of legend; in fact, he led the league in charges drawn in the season and was second in the playoffs. His ability to handle anyone after a switch allowed Toronto to play so aggressively in rotation. He still hasn’t been scored on in the post yet.

Siakam, OG Anunoby, and VanVleet are perhaps better individual defenders than Lowry, insofar as they have more athletic tools, and often took more difficult individual matchups. But Lowry’s team defense, much like his performance overall, was the heartbeat of Toronto’s entire identity. It’s difficult to imagine the Raptors without Lowry. He’s that ingrained into the structure.

And so the Raptors will enter the 2020-21 season with Lowry on an expiring deal. Much has been made of his trade value, and Toronto’s lust for cap space after next season. But that is for the future. There are a million intangible paths forward for Toronto, each fading and twinkling and non-existent until it comes true. Which is to say: who knows what will happen next year and in the years after that?

But there is only one past. And Lowry’s performance this year was worthy of as much praise as basketball writers have to give. We’re talking 2019-20, and Lowry was as good as a player could be in a non-championship year.

The sun will rise, and the sun will set, and Kyle Lowry remains Toronto’s best and most important player. The trees grow. And though Lowry remains the same size, his impact never dwindles. In 2019-20, he was as close to a sure thing as this world could possible allow.

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