There are whispered concerns about the Raptors and their lack of proper late-game execution. In their defense, it’s the one thing they can’t practice or anticipate. It’s how Toronto ended up on the wrong end of an 11-0 run in Boston on Wednesday night. But a next day contest at home against the Phoenix Suns is surely not the same thing. Outside of a couple of high-talent youngsters, they’re barely an NBA team. Yet somehow, the situation was the same — a close game, a win on the line.
Maybe there’s something then to the (said in jest) theory that the Raptors are engineering these situations on purpose. A ridiculous notion, and yet, hmm, here we are. There are other explanations — it was the second night of a back-to-back, Toronto shot just 25 percent from three (and hit no deep shots for two quarters), there was a distinct lack of Kawhi Leonard in the lineup — but this one is the most fun to consider. And when you’re watching a sloppy game against the now 11-35 Suns, more fun should be the goal.
To that end, with the game tied at 109 and 13 seconds left on the clock, the Raptors put the ball in the hands of Pascal Siakam. At the top of the circle with the seconds ticking by, Siakam was to create the final shot of regulation to send the Raptors to victory — or overtime. After waiting for what felt like an eternity, Siakam made his move, a careening drive down the left side of the lane. To that point he had already amassed eight points, 12 rebounds, five assists, a steal, and two blocks in 33 minutes. Siakam flipped up his shot, hit glass, secured two more points, and the game — Raptors win 111-109.
“I jus wanted to take the last shot,” said Siakam on his first career buzzer beater. “I was just waiting, just making sure I took the last shot, whatever shot that was.” All things considered, not a bad way to end things.
At this pivot point in the Raptors season, it still feels like there’s unsettled business with this team. There’s no obvious dysfunction, as with the Celtics’ or Sixers’ loud airing of grievances, just a low level hum that suggests not everything is yet as it should be. Beyond the clutch struggles — which are overblown thanks to recency bias — and obvious injury problems, a general theme has emerged: what if all these Raptors were all playing well... at the same time?
Because he’s in the midst of a wildly up-and-down season, all eyes were on Kyle Lowry tonight. He wasn’t even supposed to play until coach Nick Nurse announced suddenly pre-game that in fact he would. It was something of a twist — this Phoenix contest was indeed on the second night of a back-to-back, right after a game in which it looked like Lowry had faded down the stretch. Would he be able to orchestrate things with any clarity? How would his sore back be feeling? Is any of this a good idea? After Lowry put in almost 40 minutes of work, Fred VanVleet confirmed who was calling the shots, “I’m sure they don’t want [Lowry] playing back-to-backs, and you can probably guess how the rest of that conversation went.”
While Siakam will lead the highlight packages (scoring the Raptors’ first buzzer-beating winner at home in 15 years will do that), Lowry was the guy who got them there. For most of the game, Lowry spent long stretches playing behind the action, making moves when he had to and asserting himself when necessary. Still, it’s no wonder that whenever Lowry took charge of the game, in the first and fourth quarter particularly, Toronto looked like a version of the high-powered team we know they can be. When he looked tentative, or when the offense ran exclusively through VanVleet (15 points on 6-of-11 shooting) and Delon Wright (10 points and 5 assists), they didn’t look quite as hot.
Of course, in the absence of Kawhi, the Raptors need scoring to come from somewhere. Lowry finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists, while shooting just 4-of-15 from the field (and 2-of-10 from three). If nothing else, it’s clear he alone can’t get Toronto over the hump. In support, Siakam did his whirling thing, Serge Ibaka continued his confident play with 22 points (on 11-of-19 from the field) to lead the team, and C.J. Miles dusted off the cobwebs for 13 points (on 3-of-5 shooting from deep). On a night where the Raptors’ usual rotations were completely shot to hell, and the ball seemed to be bouncing all over the place, having some steady veterans and a do-it-all forward like Siakam can work wonders.
Still, this game was closer than it needed to be. The Raptors had a 16 point lead in the first quarter, but then went ice cold for much of the second and third. For the most part, the Suns got back into the game almost by accident, with only Devin Booker’s 30 points, and a 15-17 line from Deandre Ayton posing much cause for concern. (Somehow Kelly Oubre Jr. had 18 points, despite going 3-of-15 from the field — yikes.) It should have all been over late when the Suns somehow gave up a 7-point possession to Toronto — a Chris Boucher and-1 and flagrant foul call leading to a technical (and ejection) for Josh Jackson, and then a follow-up three from Lowry — yet it wasn’t.
It feels fitting then, in the wild variations of the game (and the season), that Lowry would scrape out his 5,000th career assist on a late bucket to give the Raptors’ their second-last lead of the game. It was on a pass to Ibaka for an elbow jumper, one of the most reliable plays in the Raptors’ book this season. That Lowry could do that and then seconds later flip the ball to Siakam — a huge unknown in clutch isolation situations — for the final shot is thematically consistent. Lowry may have a sore back, he may still not yet be himself, and we may not always know the form of what we’ll get from him and the Raptors, but he was also “pissed off” heading into tonight’s game. And like the incredible Hulk, you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. Especially if you’re the other team.
Oh, and in case you were wondering if Lowry kept the game ball to honour this specific career achievement: “Nah, I lost it.”
That’s our Kyle.