“You wonder if that is the final walk of the greatest Toronto Raptors of all time,” said Kia Nurse as Kyle Lowry walked through the tunnel to the locker room. The Raptors had just blown out the Denver Nuggets, 135-111, to end a nine-game losing streak, so you would think that Lowry would be happy. But his shoulder slumped. He walked slowly, heavily. His smile to the camera was half a grimace, juxtaposed with what looked like tears on his cheeks.
If it was Kyle Lowry’s final game as a Toronto Raptor — until he returns on a 10-day at the end of his career, of course, as he’s promised — then tonight wasn’t the perfect sendoff. That would have come in Toronto, not Tampa Bay. But it was the best that this world could do in a pinch.
In the center of a hurricane, no matter how fierce and blustering, is an eye. I’ve never been in the eye of a hurricane, but I imagine it’s peaceful in there. It’s quiet. Everything is surely good and happy, at least for a moment.
Toronto’s win represented the sports equivalent of the eye of a hurricane. For one night, everything in Raptor-land was still and happy. It’s possible by the time you’re reading this, Lowry will no longer be a Raptors. It’s possible that Norman Powell, the second-longest tenured Raptor, will also be traded. But for one night, the good put the beckoning mystery of what’s to come out of the spotlight.
Most importantly, larger than the results of any single game, TSN’s broadcast was staffed by six women. The idea was announced on international women’s day, and the women chosen are all incredibly talented and deserving broadcasters. Meghan McPeak called play by play, and Kia Nurse was on colour. Kayla Grey was the sideline reporter. Kate Beirness and Amy Audibert were in the studio.
The result was a flawless, fun, and fiery night, both for the Raptors and those on television to explain them.
Kia Nurse was as informative as possible in the momentary breaks allowed to the colour commentator. She offered simple and direct explanations breaking down both teams’ strategies. She taught us face-guarding, where Raptors are supposed to be as stunt helpers, different screening iterations that the Nuggets run, with Jamal Murray the guard opening space for Nikola Jokic the center. When Pascal Siakam was cooking and hitting threes, she offered the playtype out of which a shot came: pick and pop. On an OG Anunoby pick-six, Nurse explained his anticipation skills. She discussed the ever-present flare screen that Powell so loves to curl around for triples and drives. She talked about how to use the screening game against a zone defense rather than a person alignment. She mentioned how Siakam should pass out of the post and re-seal to extend his advantages. That Nurse is also a star in the WNBA, on top of a star broadcaster, also made for some highlight moments.
“There’s definitely a moment of excitement,” she said when McPeak asked if she was happy to see a rookie guarding her in the WNBA.
McPeak was cool, calm, and collected. She broadcasts like Fred plays. She also had wonderful chemistry with Nurse, lobbing the mic to her like the pitcher at the MLB home run contest. I was fortunate to sit behind McPeak for a season when she called Raptors 905 games with Gareth Wheeler, and I learned then how up-beat, professional, and talented she is. She did not disappoint in the NBA.
Beirness and Audibert were brilliant in the booth, giving flesh and texture to broader storylines, both strategic and emotional. They contextualized the Siakam-Nick Nurse spat after the Cleveland game, offered depth to the plays that Nurse introduced. Grey was similarly high-caliber on the sidelines.
If Kia Nurse and company were to be a permanent team, they would of course create their own inside jokes and repeatable lines. But for one night, it was the perfect blend of respect for the permanent crew and fun for the viewer to imitate the one and only Jack Armstrong. “GET THAT GARBAGE OUTTA HERE,” Nurse shouted, high-pitched, though not as high as Jacko goes, after a Raptors block.
“I’m not going to lie, all the songs that Matt and Jack sing, I don’t know them. I’ve never heard of them,” she said later. The point was clear that these two crews are from different generations.
After Nurse gave the Get That Garbage Outta Here treatment, McPeak squeaked “buckets” the next time the broadcast returned from ads. It was fun all around.
The game was historic in more ways than one. The broadcast, of course, was stellar. One of the best; any team would be happy to have that quality of analysis on an everyday basis. It was fitting, then, that this game could also have been Lowry’s last with the franchise. If you expected him to gun for a record, to hijack the offense and go out in style, to score 60 points on 50 shots — then you don’t know Lowry.
Instead, he did what he has always done. He grabbed offensive rebounds. He stripped opponents and rushed officials to get him the ball for speedy inbounds. He drove and skipped the ball behind him, initiating the swing-swing-shot sequences that don’t show up on his box score, beyond three points for the Raptors. At one point, his assist-to-shot attempt ratio was absurd six-to-one. It’s no longer Lowry’s team, but he sure can make it look good when he’s alongside the team’s stars.
“I’m not the tallest, I’m not the most athletic and I’m not the fanciest but I play hard and it’s got me a long way, by playing hard,” said Lowry after the game. Of course, he opened his media availability unprompted by complimenting the broadcast on their incredible and historic evening.
And when the sun set on the game, Lowry finished a plus-42 on the evening, the best mark of his entire career. If that was Lowry’s last game as a Raptor, it was as fitting an end as the greatest Greek playwrights could have contrived. Fortunately, it won’t be: Lowry himself promised at least one final game in Toronto,
If it was Lowry who dominated behind the scenes, if not in the box score, it was the kids who took over in the foreground. Siakam hit three triples. Fred VanVleet hit five. Anunoby, in particular was the star of the evening. Toronto used him as much as possible as the screener in pick and roll with VanVleet, trying to use Anunoby’s shooting and quickness advantages against Jokic. He hit triple after triple and threw in a Kawhi-esque fadeaway in the paint for good measure. He annihilated opposing shots and picked off passes for easy dunks. The last time he played the Nuggets was one of the best games of his career, and this was as smooth a sequel as the Godfather II.
That’s kind of why Toronto is in its current situation. Anunoby, VanVleet, and Siakam are the no longer the future; they’re the present. When they play like this, they can beat anyone. But losing nine games in a row means that Toronto is probably too little too late to make a serious playoff run this season, no matter the highs of the Denver game. And with Lowry soon to hit free agency, his personal path is diverging from the team’s. He no longer creates the team in his image. That is neither good or bad, but simply a fact of life — generational change happens, like it or not. So on what will probably be Lowry’s final game, at least until a symbolic one at the very end, it was Lowry’s trio of proteges who dominated the game. Historic change deserves historic coverage. Thus a Hollywood writer couldn’t have scripted a better game for the all-women broadcast.
It was a great night for Raptors basketball in far more ways than one. Toronto broke its losing streak, and the young overshadowed the old. Both on the court and in the booth.