The Raptors’ past returns to bite them

9 mins read

He dresses like James Bond for his media availability before the game, wearing a tailored black suit with a white pocket square, pressed and dotted white shirt underneath, thick championship ring swallowing his right ring finger. His eyes are half hidden by what look like DITA sunglasses.

“I’m home,” says Kyle Lowry in that presser. Later, walking the tunnel to leave the court after a win, he says to the camera, “still home to me, always gonna be home.”

“I ain’t gonna let you all see me cry.”

The half-filled crowd stands when he trots on the court for warmup, cheers his every step and touch. He wears the usual sweater underneath his warmup clothes, shoots free throws during pre-game ceremonies to stay warm, ambles across the line of Heat players. For being home, he doesn’t seem comfortable, is nervous. The cameramen and videographers flock to the Heat rather than the Raptors, crowding and swarming him as he stands and fidgets, hands behind his back. The rest of the Heat players and even the Raptors are forgotten, this moment beyond them all.

The crowd is full by the time his introduction video begins. Lowry watches from the bench then walks to midcourt, raising his arms, spinning slowly in love and appreciation. The crowd chants “Lowry! Lowry!” out of rhythm, more frantic desperation than a true cheer. He holds his hands over his heart as he walks to his team huddle. 

He’s all business when the game starts, grin gone, jitters stilled in motion. He chips in passes, draws some free throws on a triple, calls out defensive coverages. He carves through Toronto’s mad-dash defensive coverages, attacking the paint with ferocity. He knows Toronto’s defense — helped build it — and pinpoints the weaknesses in the joints.

The crowd cheers loudest in the first quarter when Fred VanVleet presses Lowry at the half-court line, nipping at the ball, tipping it out of bounds. It senses the collision of the two protagonists on the night. It still cheers when Lowry scores, but it cheers louder when the Raptors do. Old allegiances can only live so long in conflict with the new.

It’s not just a homecoming for Lowry. Precious Achiuwa plays against his old team, too. Against his old mentor in Bam Adebayo, he plays up and down and puts up muted numbers. Achiuwa’s not the only young star-in-the-making who attacks against the backdrop of history. Scottie Barnes hits three threes, but more importantly he scores in the post guarded by the un-post-upable Lowry. Past, meet future.

“It was time for the next phase,” says Lowry of his departure from Toronto. The demarcation between phases is malleable. Perhaps it began immediately upon Lowry’s departure, or maybe earlier, in Tampa Bay, Lowry a spectral figure even while he was still on the team. Maybe it won’t begin until the playoffs, Toronto’s first without Lowry in an era

But one tangible line of demarcation comes in the first quarter as VanVleet shatters a Lowry record: most three-point makes in a single season. If the game is most emotional for Lowry, then VanVleet has to be a close second. He faces his mentor, his team’s former leader, against whom he now has to prove himself. And VanVleet bursts through any possible ceiling of the occasion, scoring 17 in the first quarter. It takes him seven minutes to shatter the only Lowry record within his sights on this night. Surely he’ll be coming for more on future nights. Lowry says so himself after the game.

VanVleet ties his own record for most points in a first quarter in his seize-the-narrative charge out of the gates. Lowry’s personal record, fittingly, is also 17. On a night supposed to be dedicated to Lowry, VanVleet makes it about himself for a time. VanVleet inherited more than the Raptors — he also learned from his mentor, who once scored 11 points in the first two minutes of a Finals-winning game, the weight of the moment.

“That’s what respect looks like,” says VanVleet.

Lowry doesn’t go softly into that good night. He draws free throws against a baffled Gary Trent jr. — unused to Lowry’s shenanigans — and later tips the ball out of bounds and gesticulates wildly to the ref that Trent tipped it after him. In the second half he pick-sixes a VanVleet pass as the latter is trapped on the sidelines. He steals a loose ball from the Siakam, puts the latter in jail on the other end before falling forward and tossing the ball at the rim, grifting some free throws. 

He hits a go-ahead triple from the corner with six minutes left, and the crowd has lost its taste for Lowry nostalgia. There are no cheers for him at that point, Lowry no more than an opponent, and a frustrating one at that. The Raptors faithful finally learn the pain of seeing Lowry grift against their team.

In the end it is Max Strus who decides the game, raining in triples. That, perhaps more than anything else, is the most accurate tribute to Lowry, the patron saint of lifting bench players, catalyzing more from them than anyone else. 

The dust settles. VanVleet scored more points than Lowry and even broke the old man’s record in the process. After the game VanVleet said he told Lowry he’d do it in the first quarter. But Lowry tossed himself around for free throws, threw some prescient passes, and outdid the flashier, younger player who put up better numbers. He grabbed the game ball on a meaningless VanVleet miss at the buzzer, cradling it in his arm as he traipsed across the court to say goodbye to his former teammates, to bask in his victory with would-be opponents, reduced to supporting cast members on Lowry’s big night. As with all things Lowry, the ball was not for himself, but for Miami’s interim Head Coach, winning his first game.

Lowry is the last player to leave the court, waving to the fans who still cluster around the edges of the court, standing, cheering, flocking to his magnetism. Perhaps fandom evaporated during the heat of the game, but it returns in full force after the buzzer, no matter who won.  Lowry waves and smiles like a visiting monarch as he walks off the floor, tired and happy. He wears the same suit in his press conference after the game, classy to the end. Lowry remains Lowry, no matter the name of the city on his jersey.

And the Raptors remain the Raptors, though perhaps not of the same era without Lowry in charge. They’re in the midst of building an identity in the present, one based on length and versatility. But the past won the game, Lowry doing to the Raptors what he spent almost a decade doing for them. Lowry came home in more ways than one.

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