Sometimes the end result just doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The long-awaited return of Kyle Lowry to Toronto was an example of this.
Yes, the Raptors lost this one by a final score of 114-109, nearly crushing their hopes of a surprise first-round home run. And yes, they’ve done it frustratingly, losing the defensive identity they’ve really discovered over the last month or so. In the end, however, this game was a win for everyone involved with second Mark “Strizzy” Strong announcing Lowry’s name as Miami’s fifth starter, releasing a hit video tribute and more .
The Raptors have done a lot over the past decade to leave behind the lesser fond memories of the franchise’s tough times. A championship is definitely a way out of joke team status. But if there’s one thing they’ve never fully understood, it’s that they’re parting ways with star players. Damon Stoudamire, embittered in the team, was quickly shipped off to Portland before his rookie contract was even up. Vince Carter, well, we know the story there. Chris Bosh grappled with the remnants of Bryan Colangelo’s unhealthy quick recovery plans, and rightfully sought greener pastures. And while trading DeMar DeRozan was a necessary step, blinding him probably wasn’t.
Even with Lowry, there were plenty of outings where things could have ended unceremoniously. The Knicks’ close deal, multiple flirtations with free agency, even last year’s high-stress trade deadline — all could have left at least one side or the other with a bitter taste in their mouths. Thankfully, the Raptors pulled off the one-star start they desperately needed to succeed. The five or so minutes of pure love shared between the Scotiabank Arena crowd and Lowry standing on center court with his sons was the result of this careful manipulation.
Having an unconditionally beloved franchise icon who shares the sentiment was the only missing piece in the Raptors’ organizational resume. After tonight, not anymore. All notions of this being a NERF bullet franchise are cooked for good.
It’s been established over 78 games, but it’s pretty clear the post-Lowry Raptors will have ambitions similar to what Lowry achieved in Toronto, if not this season, at least very soon. While the guys who took over from Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby are very up to the task, even if their wise old vet is the one who emerged victorious on Sunday.
Of those four, three played against the Heat (OG missed this one with a thigh bruise after taking a knock Friday in Orlando), and all three were great in their own way. VanVleet opened the night with a 17-point first quarter, including three hat-tricks that pushed him past Lowry’s previous single-season Raptors record of 238. got to the line for 11 free throws and made them all, and closed the night with a solid 29-2-7 line on the 7/17 shot, 4/11 from three. Barnes, the showpiece with no connection to the Lowry era, had 19 points, seven boards, two assists and two steals in 35 minutes. And Siakam, facing Bam Adebayo, the league’s No. 4 defenseman and perennial Defensive Player of the Year contender, was as excellent as Raps fans expect him to be, scoring 29 points while grabbing nine boards and sending five. ten cents on the set of 11/19, achieved through the kind of relentless match-hunting we’ve seen from him all season.
But even with the new Raptor basketball forwards performing well against the previous one, the Raptors didn’t have the juice to keep up with a Miami offense that started humming in the second half, thanks to a tempo mix driven by Lowry. , and some lights out while shooting three-pointers against a messy defense.
“They shot a lot obviously, but it was the first time in a long time that we had trouble hitting some of our stuff defensively,” Nick Nurse detailed after the loss, pointing to the Raptors’ back rotations in response to the ball pressure while the weak point.
Specifically, Nurse pointed to a third-quarter streak in which the Raptors bombed Tyler Herro but left Miami’s fifth option Omer Yurtseven unattended under the bucket for three straight layoffs. Couple that with slow-to-get contests from the Heat’s stable of dangerous long-range gunners, and it was as out of place defensive effort as we’ve seen in Toronto in weeks. The Heat have connected on 18 of 38 threes.
“We weren’t very tuned defensively, we weren’t good enough, I thought they looked really good,” Nurse said. “…you gotta hope they miss. And they didn’t miss. You gotta make them miss.”
Toronto would probably have done much better on the defensive end if Anunoby was available. He’s been Toronto’s defensive leader against slippery guards all season, and Herro, who flirted with a triple-double with his 18-10-8 line, certainly fits the description. It couldn’t have hurt to have OG’s dead-eye shot on the receiving end of some of Siakam’s or VanVleet’s hard-earned kicks in this one either. Barnes bombing three is a lot of fun, but having him throw nine (which he did three) isn’t exactly a way for this Raptors team to max out their offense. As wonderful as Precious Achiuwa has been from the outside since February, he missed his only attempt against his former team.
The nurse didn’t seem too concerned about Anunoby’s thigh bruise when she approached her after the game. But just ten days into the post-season, any small illness is worrying.
That said, Sunday’s out-of-town scoreboard offers the Raptors some cushion with OG if he needs more than one game to get back up to speed. Cleveland’s loss to Philadelphia more or less ended the Raptors’ dreams of stalking the Sixers, but it also set the Cavs back another game in the loss column. Even with Cleveland holding the tiebreaker over Toronto, it becomes hard to envision a meltdown last week that puts the Raptors back under the foul line. Any combo of two Raptors wins or Cavs losses by Sunday will lock in the Raptors in the safe zone. As for the fifth seed race with Chicago, the teams are even at 45-33, and the Bulls have the tiebreaker. Toronto finishes with Atlanta, Philly, Houston and the Knicks; Chicago has Milwaukee, Boston, Charlotte and Minnesota—Raptors advantage.
Now stop worrying about little things like rankings and magic numbers, and go watch Lowry’s tribute again. It is, after all, the only thing that concerned this night.