Sometimes the end result just doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Kyle Lowry’s long-awaited return to Toronto was one such case.
Yes, the Raptors lost this one by a final score of 114-109, all but sinking their hopes of a surprise run at home court in the first round. And yeah, they did so in frustrating fashion, losing the defensive identity they’ve really discovered over the course of the last month or so. Ultimately, though, this game was a win for everyone involved the second Mark “Strizzy” Strong announced Lowry’s name as Miami’s fifth starter, kicking off a video tribute that hit the mark and then some.
The Raptors have done a lot in the last decade to leave the not-so-good memories of the franchise’s leaner times behind them. A championship certainly is one way to graduate from joke team status. But one thing they’ve never quite gotten right is splits with star players. Damon Stoudamire soured on the team quickly was shipped off to Portland before his rookie contract was even up. Vince Carter, well, we know the story there. Chris Bosh was saddled with the remnants of Bryan Colangelo’s illbegotten get-good-quick schemes, and rightfully sought out greener pastures. And while the DeMar DeRozan trade was a necessary step, blindsiding him probably wasn’t.
Even with Lowry, there were plenty of offramps where things could have ended unceremoniously. The near Knicks deal, the 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 sour taste in their mouths. Thankfully, the Raptors nailed the one star departure they most desperately needed to get right. The five or so minutes of pure, two-way love shared between the Scotiabank Arena crowd and Lowry, standing at center court with his sons, were the result of that careful handling.
Having an unconditionally loved franchise icon who reciprocates the feeling was the one piece missing from the Raptors organizational resumé. After tonight, no longer. Any notions that this is a NERF ball franchise are cooked for good.
It’s been established over 78 games, but it’s pretty clear the post-Lowry Raptors are going to have similar ambitions to the ones Lowry achieved in Toronto, if not this season, then very soon. As the guys who received the baton from Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby are looking very much up to the task, even if their sage old vet was the one who came out on top on Sunday.
Of those four, three played against the Heat (OG missed this one with a thigh contusion after taking a knock on Friday in Orlando), and all three were excellent in their own ways. VanVleet kicked the night off with a 17-point first quarter, including three made triples that nudged him past Lowry’s previous single-season Raptors record of 238. Flashing a little bit more downhill burst than he’s shown most nights since All-Star weekend, he got to the line for 11 free throws and made them all, and closed the night with a rock solid 29-2-7 line on 7/17 shooting, 4/11 from three. Barnes, the one core piece with no ties at all to the Lowry era, chipped in 19 points, seven boards, two assists and two steals in 35 minutes. And Siakam, up against the league’s 4th-ranked defense and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Bam Adebayo as his primary check, was as excellent as Raps fans have come to expect from him, pouring in 29 points while grabbing nine boards and dishing five dimes on 11/19 shooting, achieved through the type of relentless matchup hunting we’ve seen from him all season.
But even with the new vanguards of Raptor basketball showing out well against the previous one, the Raptors didn’t have the juice to keep pace with a Miami offense that started to hum in the second half, thanks to a mix of Lowry-driven tempo, and some lights out three-point shooting against an out-of-sorts defense.
“They made a lot of shots obviously but that was the first time in a while we had trouble getting to some of our stuff defensively,” detailed Nick Nurse after the loss, pointing to the Raptors’ back side rotations in response to ball pressure as the soft spot.
Specifically, Nurse highlighted a stretch in the third quarter during which the Raptors blitzed Tyler Herro a bunch, but left Miami’s fifth option in Omer Yurtseven unattended under the bucket for three consecutive lay-ins. Couple that with some slow-to-get-there contests of the Heat’s stable of dangerous long-range gunners, and it was as out of character defensive effort as we’ve seen from Toronto in weeks. The Heat connected on 18 of 38 threes.
“We weren’t very tuned in defensively, we weren’t good enough, I thought they had really good looks,” Nurse said. “... you’ve gotta hope they miss. And they didn’t miss. You‘ve gotta make ‘em miss.”
Toronto likely would have fared a lot better on the defensive end if Anunoby were available. He’s been Toronto’s defensive ringer 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 shooting on the receiving end of some of Siakam or VanVleet’s hard-earned kick-outs in this one either. Barnes bombing threes is a lot of fun, but having him chuck up nine (of which he made three) is not exactly a way for this Raptors team to maximize its offense. For as wonderful as Precious Achiuwa’s been from outside since February, his missed his only attempt against his former team.
Nurse didn’t seem overly concerned about Anunoby’s thigh contusion when addressing it after the game. But with just ten days to go in the post-season, any little malady is of concern.
That said, the out of town scoreboard on Sunday offers the Raptors a little bit of cushion with OG should he need more than one game off to get back up to speed. Cleveland’s loss to Philadelphia more or less put and end to the Raptors’ dreams of tracking down the Sixers, but it also set the Cavs back another game in the loss column. Even with Cleveland holding the tiebreaker over Toronto’s, it’s getting tough to envision a final week collapse that puts the Raptors back below the play-in line. Any combo of two Raptors wins or Cavs losses between now and Sunday will lock the Raptors into 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’s got Milwaukee, Boston, Charlotte and Minnesota — advantage Raptors.
Now, stop concerning yourself with small things like the standings and magic numbers, and go watch the Lowry tribute again. That is a,fter all, the only thing this night was actually about.