There are limits to a person’s focus, or a whole team’s for that matter. It’s how we arrive at this blah-seeming contest on Wednesay night between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. The NBA’s restarted regular season is wrapping up, and much like the final week or two of a normal season, these last couple of games just don’t matter much. So while it feels like only yesterday when we were excited for the return of the Raptors, remember: it was actually less than two weeks ago.
All of this, however, does not apply to Kyle Lowry — it almost never does. Toronto’s leader tends to play with two gears: (1) pissed off and (2) really pissed off with something to prove. Much of the opening half for Lowry was spent in first gear because Toronto was playing poorly on defense and missing makeable shots. But then in the second, after a 13-0 run got the Raptors back in the game, Lowry got called for a technical. It likely happened because he’d called out “and one!” too many times, but the reason didn’t matter — the outcome would have been the same. Lowry would score eight points over the next two and a half minutes — and 18 of his 19 in the quarter — including a drive from end to end in four seconds just before the halftime buzzer. Yes, the Raptors and Sixers weren’t really playing for anything, but Lowry had his mission. (And, yes, he was still pissed off.)
And would you believe that same spirit would help push Toronto to the 125-121 win? Yes, yes, you would. The win got the Raps to 52 on the season, and while 60 wins is all the way impossible, it really does feel like this would have been the year.
That’s because, even with the Raptors resting players and with others sitting out, Toronto’s bench became the story here. Despite Philly’s early control of the game, and after Lowry’s angry explosion, the second half became something of a seesaw battle that eventually gave way to deep bench units for both teams. For the Sixers, that meant long runs for Matisse Thybulle, Raul Neto, Furkan Korkmaz, Norvel Pelle, Mike Scott, and Marial Shayok. For the Raptors, after Terence Davis fouled out, it meant a group led by Matt Thomas and Stanley Johnson, along with the mix-and-match group of Chris Boucher, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Malcolm Miller, Paul Watson, and the rarely seen Dewan Hernandez.
I mention all these names to make it clear: this was not a star-powered group and the final six minutes of this game — especially after the Sixers took what felt like an insurmountable 10-point lead — should not have been in any way fun to watch. Yet that Lowry energy seemed to find its way into other players; perhaps not always as anger, but as an indefatigable spirit, a never-say-die attitude, an almost reckless desire to win. It carried on even after he had left the game.
After a quiet third quarter from Lowry, it was Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam who picked up the slack, each going for 11 points in the frame to pace Toronto. The pair finished with 17 and 15 points, respectively, along with nine rebounds for Siakam. As the core Raptors’ minutes began to wane (Fred VanVleet and Marc Gasol finished their usual shift in the third and were also never heard from again), then it was Boucher’s time to shine. With no Joel Embiid to stop him, the lanky Canadien flew all over the court in the third, bouncing in eight points and adding two more dramatic blocks. He’d finish the game with 19 points, tying him for the team lead with (who else?) Lowry. The stage was set for the out-of-nowhere fun of the final stretch.
With the Sixers leading by 10, the Raptors began chipping away. Thomas hit his first 3 of the game, then after some Johnson free throws, Hollis-Jefferson hit an astounding one of his own. Not to be left out, Hernandez — 59th pick Dewan Hernandez! — drained a three from the top of the circle to keep the Raptors close. Thybulle responded with a 3, so Hernandez hit a driving lay-up plus the foul to keep the roll going. To round things out, Watson took a turn with a nifty floater. Then Johnson, butt of all the jokes Stanley Johnson, calming drove down the lane to tie it; he then followed up on a blocked Hernandez shot by serenely gathering the ball and hitting a jumper in the lane to give Toronto the lead with four seconds left.
And who was the first player to greet Stanley as he charged to the bench of hooting and hollering fellow Raptors, the lot of them urging their teammates on to victory? Lowry again. This time, though, he was all smiles too.