The biggest play Kyle Lowry made in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs might have been overlooked.
Game 3 in Orlando, time winding down, Toronto clinging to a three-point lead. Kawhi Leonard’s jumper was well short, barely grazing the front of the rim. The rebound hits the floor and ricochets between Orlando’s Terrence Ross and D.J. Augustin. They lunged for the ball, and they never had a chance.
Out of nowhere, Lowry swooped in between the Magic guards, grabbed the rebound and extended the possession. Seconds later, game over, Raptors win. Orlando’s chance at a tie never came, because Lowry knew exactly what was required in the ultimate moment.
“Kyle does things by example,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “He throws his body around. He’s continually blocking out guys, seemingly twice his size and keeping them off the glass. He’s stepping in and taking charges. Those are inspiring-type plays, I think, that rub off and are contagious and get the rest of the guys on your team to do it.”
That’s what they need, too.
Lowry and the Raptors are headed to the second round of the East playoffs starting Saturday, when they play host to Philadelphia in Game 1. He wasn’t a big scorer in the first round, went scoreless in Game 1 against the Magic — got criticized for it, though that doesn’t bother him much anymore — and has basically become Toronto’s third scoring option thanks to the acquisition of Leonard and the emergence of Pascal Siakam.
He is not complaining.
“It’s about winning,” Lowry said. “It’s a team game. It takes a good team to understand situations, mismatches … for me, it’s about being a good teammate, helping my guys. If I need to score I can go score. If I need to pass, I can pass. But winning games is all that matters.”
The Raptors won their last four games of the first round. It’s the first four-game winning streak of Lowry’s long playoff career.
“It’s a blessing to have him on the floor,” Leonard said.
The Raptors’ playoff shortcomings — and Lowry’s — are well-documented. The second round is where their seasons ended in each of the last two years, both in sweeps. They lost in the East finals in 2016. In all three of those seasons, it was LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers that sent them into the summer.
James isn’t there to thwart them this time.
His leaving has opened up the path to the East title, and Toronto — the team with the NBA’s second-best record this season, 58-24 — might have its best chance yet of reaching the NBA Finals.
“It’s going to be an incredibly tough series,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “I think that Toronto is as good as there is in the NBA and we will be tested immediately.”
And the 76ers surely won’t consider Lowry a third option.
They played four times this season, and Lowry scored exactly 20 points in three different games — making him one of eight players (Leonard being another) to have that many 20-point outings against the 76ers in this regular season.
“I think we’re just continuing to get better,” Lowry said. “We’re growing as a team, growing as a group. I think our communication is getting a lot better. I think the time that we have in studying one team … it’s really good for us.”
His scoring is down, and that’s largely by design. The Raptors don’t need him going into games thinking he needs to get 25 to give his team the best chance of winning anymore.
Leonard said scoring isn’t a valid evaluator of Lowry anymore. He’s among Toronto’s best at deflections, taking charges, getting steals, diving for loose balls. His toughness isn’t in question either — in Game 5 against Orlando, Lowry dislocated a finger on his right, shooting, hand. He popped it back in himself and shook it off afterward.
Nurse equates Lowry’s leadership to that of a savvy veteran quarterback. And Leonard doesn’t disagree with that comparison.
“He makes us all better,” Leonard said.