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Stay in the moment: Putting Kyle Lowry’s return to Toronto into words

It was just one game between two good, but shorthanded, teams at the end of the season. It was also so much more.

Miami Heat v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Kyle Lowry’s return to Scotiabank Arena as a visiting player was long overdue — and yet somehow, even with all these months of preparation, it was also something that I still wasn’t prepared to see.

After missing the previous Toronto Raptors vs. Miami Heat game in Toronto (one that was played with no fans, anyway), Lowry finally made his way north of the border with the Heat last night. Following a touching pre-game celebration, the Raptors controlled the first half — but Lowry’s Heat outscored Toronto 69-54 after halftime en route to a 114-109 victory.

For all the game details, check out Sean Woodley’s recap. It was a fun one, despite the loss!

But let’s talk about Mr. Raptor.

I’ve been to a few of these celebrations now; the parade, ring night, Kawhi Leonard’s return. They’re all special and indelibly etched on my memory.

But last night’s was unique. It wasn’t just that the GROAT was back in the building, it’s that as soon as the celebration was over, the competition immediately cranked all the way up. Remember how lame Kawhi’s first game back with the Clippers was? The Clips won it easily; the Raptors barely looked ready to play.

This game, though, was competitive from the get-go. Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam were ready-ready. They weren’t about to let the emotion of the night derail them.

And you know what? The crowd was the same way. Once the tribute was over, and we expressed our love — that was it. We wanted to win.

It was very much a complete Kyle Lowry experience.

The warm-up

There were, of course, cheers — and goosebumps — when Lowry came out of the tunnel for warmups, streaked past all of his teammates, and scored the first bucket of the layup lineup; of course, he got a giant ovation.

Then it was waiting time. The warmups. The land acknowledgment. The anthems. Then more warmups!

As the Heat warmed up and Lowry dapped up his teammates, I had to wonder — did they know? Do they have any idea what he means to this team, and this city? Would Lowry’s reception clue them in?

Probably not. Even the cheers of 20,000 can’t fully capture what Kyle did for this city or this country. He transformed a once-moribund franchise into a winner! He brought a title to the Toronto Raptors, to Canada!!

I’ve written about this so many times before, but if you grew up watching the Raptors in the Lowry era, you’ve had it pretty lucky; for most of the previous 18 years, it seemed like postseason success — let alone title contention — seemed like a pipe dream. The franchise seemed more closer to relocation than it ever did to winning anything.

Kyle Lowry — along with Masai Ujiri, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Dwane Casey, Nick Nurse, Kawhi Leonard and others — changed all that.

The tribute

Finally, the moment came. PA announcer Herbie Kuhn introduced the other four Heat starters, then the lights came down, and it was time for the video tribute.

If you remember the Kawhi Leonard tribute — the footsteps illuminated on the court — it’s a hard one to top. Thankfully, the Raptors didn’t try — they went with a simple, heartfelt video, one that showcased Lowry’s growth and development as a Raptor, his highlights on the court (including the drawing of numerous changes) and off it.

You could tell it came from the heart. The people that work at Raptors game ops and on the media and video teams, they know what Kyle means to Toronto — he means as much to them, too.

After the video, Mark “Strizzzy” Strong introduced Kyle with his traditional “From North Philly, to you city...” and Kyle made his way to halfcourt with his two sons, Kameron and Karter; we all know how important fatherhood is to Kyle, and we know those two have grown up here, so we know what it means for Kyle to be able to share that with them in this city.

The ovation lasted a good two minutes, but of course, didn’t seem nearly long enough. Kyle soaked it in, and I bet he would’ve enjoyed the moment longer too, if he could have.

But, there was a game to be played.

The game

As the game opened, Kyle almost immediately forced Gary Trent Jr. into a tough shot, and then tried to draw a charge on Siakam the next time down — but Pascal wan’t falling for it.

Lowry then drew a 3-point shooting foul on Khem Birch, perhaps selling the contact just a little bit — but what else did you expect from the Grift King?

When Fred VanVleet did the same thing on Adebayo three minutes later, it was the perfect mirror image, and boy, did that theme keep coming back tonight. It was very weird watching Freddy guard Kyle — not just because we’re used to seeing them on the same side, but because matched up one-on-one, you really see the similarities — and also, how incredibly frustrating it must be to play against either one!

When Freddy knocked the ball away from Kyle on an early first quarter possession, the crowd loved it, and that’s when I knew how much Lowry had rubbed off on us all — he’s (I mean this in the nicest way) a bastard of a competitor. As much as everyone in the building loves Kyle, Raptors fans have clearly taken on his competitiveness - we love him, and we want the best for him — but we don’t want to see him succeed against us!

After the game, Nick Nurse said he didn’t think the pair had gone at it like that since VanVleet’s rookie year; Nurse said he used to put them on the same team in practice to prevent them atom going at each other with that much intensity.

Lowry spent the second timeout arguing with the officials, which of course, is perfect. Also perfect? A couple plays later, Lowry barrelled into Scottie Barnes, drawing the foul in a moment of perfect grift. A true “welcome to Kyle Lowry’s House” moment for Scottie (but in true Kyle Lowry’s House fashion, Lowry didn’t get continuation on the play.)

When Lowry came back in the second, Scottie took him onto the post — and although Kyle held his ground and forced him into a tough shot, Scottie still drained it. That was a cool moment to see, another “pass the torch” moment — we all know how incredible Lowry is defending the post against bigger players, so to see Scottie still score, that cements that hope that we have of Barnes leading us into a post-Lowry future.

Back to VanVleet, the Raptors All-Star managed to score on a drive right into the lane, where Kyle met him at the rim (well, below the rim); Fred took a good bump from Kyle, absorbed it, and still scored — prompting a good laugh between the former teammates. If nothing else it was an incredibly Kyle bucket for VanVleet.

On Miami’s final possession of the second quarter, Lowry wound down the clock just inside the timeline, but Pascal Siakam pressed up on him — and nearly forced the over-and-back. Lowry then drove middle and tried to turn the corner, but Siakam didn’t give him and inch of breathing room — and Kyle turned it over. Again, Lowry’s competitiveness clearly rubbed off on his former teammates.

In the second half, we were treated to a veritable highlight reel of Lowry Winning Plays (TM). No, he didn’t draw a charge — Siakam narrowly avoided another — but he did…

  • Pick off a pass and score in transition
  • Throw several hit-ahead passes after makes
  • Knock rebounds away from defensive bigs
  • Continually tell his teammates where to go on D
  • Argue with the officials
  • Draw a foul by sticking out his caboose

And more, I’m sure. Lowry finished the game with 16 points, 10 assists, six rebounds and a steal.

Lowry also helped the Heat win the possession battle, as Miami controlled the turnover and transition game, and the glass. That’s what the Raptors like to do, of course; Kyle clearly learned that from Nick Nurse, to turn the other team’s strength into your own strength.

As for highlights, Lowry buried a big corner three with six minutes left that put the Heat up 93-91; they never trailed again.

Of course, the Raptors did force a turnover with 12 seconds to go, trailing by four, and VanVleet got a good look straight on from three… that, too was some Lowry shit. Sadly, the shot didn’t go in, and the Heat walked away with the win.

The aftermath

Leaving the court after the final buzzer, Lowry hugged all his former teammates, then did media under the Heat basket. The remaining fans in that section went crazy, and after his interview, he dapped up fans, and left the floor to another ovation (with the game ball, of course) from the few thousand remaining fans.

After the game, Max Strus called the scene incredible; he, for one, didn’t know entirely what to expect, although he did say Kyle warned the team it was going be a big deal, and that the energy was going to be special.

“I was surprised at how much they put on a show for him,” Strus said, praising Toronto’s game ops for the incredible work they did. “It was great to see what Kyle means to this crowd. You don’t get the chance to get that kind of love if you’re not a great person and a great teammate.

“It’s definitely something everyone dreams about in their career.”

Acting Heat head coach Chris Quinn said experiencing the scene, and seeing the impact Lowry had — of being a winner, of being a champion — was amazing to be a part of.

“Greatness inspires greatness in so many ways,” Quinn said. “Nine years with this city, the ups, the downs, the championship, I could tell he was feeling a range of emotions.

“He kept joking before that he didn’t want to cry… to see him able to celebrate with his kids, I’m surprised he was able to reel that in and play as well as he did.”

As for Lowry himself, he said the night meant the world to him.

“For the fans to show their appreciation, to give me an ovation like that, to be out on the floor with some of my former teammates, my brothers… the first time is special,” Lowry said. “You don’t forget that.”

“The organization showed how classy they are” by the show they put on, he continued. “It meant the world to them too, and it means everything that they share the love — I love them, they love me.

“It’s something I’m going to cherish for a long time.”

The moment

Before the game, Kyle said be was looking forward to just being in the moment.

“I never let myself just be in the moment much, in these kinds of celebrations,” he said, before catching himself and saying he wouldn’t let it get in the way of going out to try and win the game (which of course, he did).

At Lowry’s words, I found myself thinking back to the championship run, and several moments in the playoffs where I thought the exact same thing to myself. Most notably, in the Finals, in Game 1 and Game 5 — when Leonard nearly single-handedly won the game and the series with that unbelievable 10-0 run — I forced myself to slow down, and take in the scene, and remember the moment. To not think about the outcome, or writing about it, or how I would celebrate — to just being right there, and allowing myself to feel it.

I hope Kyle got to do the same on this night.

I think he did. As Lowry left the gym to cheers, he conjured the image of a conquering hero, returning home after a long campaign: his arm raised, waving, his trophy (the game ball) nestled under his other arm. You could easily picture him in some 1960s biblical epic, being led through a parade in a horse-drawn chariot.

Of course, in this case, Lowry was being hailed by those he just conquered…

… but in a weird way, that felt exactly right.