TORONTO • Kyle Lowry kept saying it would be fine, but there were reasons to wonder otherwise.
From the moment he showed up to open training camp a month ago and zipped a KL-branded hoodie over his Toronto Raptors jersey, questions about his enthusiasm for this team and this season remained. Did he share DeMar DeRozan’s sense of betrayal? Did he have some survivor’s guilt with both his backcourt mate and former head coach now gone?
Lowry would say, in the limited times in which he said anything in the pre-season, that he was happy, that he understood the business, that he would be ready to play basketball. But he sure didn’t sound thrilled about any of it. In the exhibition schedule he was awful: 20% shooting from three-point range, a mess of turnovers, and an ejection from the last game in which he played.
And then the season began, and the games counted, and he was brilliant.
It was a reminder, that while the ceiling of this Raptors team will be determined by the health and play of Kawhi Leonard, and while head coach Nick Nurse has a wealth of weapons at his disposal, the most reliable of those remains the surly point guard from Philadelphia. Wherever the Raptors go this season, Kyle Lowry figures to be a big part of it.
On Wednesday night in the Raptors’ 116-104 win over a Cleveland Cavaliers team that very much does not feature LeBron James, Lowry looked entirely different than the guy who was firing air balls in the pre-season. He made Toronto’s first basket with a driving layup, finding a seam as he often does among the big bodies in the paint, and later in the first quarter he buried his first three-point attempt from a hilarious 29 feet. He would finish with 27 wildly efficient points: 10-of-12 shooting, 5-of-6 from three-point range, and eight assists.
Nurse said he was confident that Lowry’s game would come around when it mattered.
“He’s been really good in his effort and his leadership and his work and I just think that a lot of these veteran guys, they can’t just quite get their motor going quite enough to the level it needs to be in the pre-season after 10 or 12 years,” said the coach who now sports a 1-0 career record in the NBA.
“But he’s worked very hard, he’s practiced very well and he was just waiting for the lights to come on.”
And while his statistics were impressive enough, Lowry’s impact is as much about all the little things he does during a game. He has a knack for taking over at key moments: the layup through traffic that closed the first half, and which ended with the buzzer sounding and Lowry sprawled on the floor, the late layup that put the game away, giving Toronto a 10-point lead with two minutes left, and which ended with the point guard jawing at the officials about the lack of a foul call on attempt. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Lowry made a steal and charged up the court with a pair of players from each team in tow, but when he lobbed up a pass, neither of his teammates jumped for it. He was quite displeased with the ensuing turnover, and was still muttering about it a minute later when the play had gone back up the court, swiping the floor in disgust. At various points in the night Lowry could be seen talking theatrically to his teammates — new backcourt partner Danny Green received many of the lessons — after a blown play or missed assignment. He hasn’t said much off the court, but man he was saying a lot on it.
Somewhat lost in the story of the Toronto Raptors over recent years, a series of strong regular seasons followed by various levels of crushing playoff disappointment, is that Lowry shook off the post-season struggles of his early years on this team. While DeRozan was ineffective again against Cleveland last spring, Lowry was Toronto’s best player in that series, averaging almost 18 points and nine assists on 57/46/87 shooting. He had played well against LeBron and the Cavs a season earlier in the playoffs, too, before an injury caused him to miss the final two games of that series and pretty much sealed the Raptors’ fate. It is not an accident that, after team president Masai Ujiri finally hit the big red button labeled KABOOM at the end of last season, Lowry is still here to lead his new-look team.
Just don’t expect him to become all chatty and effusive about it.
After the game on Wednesday night, Lowry continued to be all business. “It was a good win. Every game is not going to be pretty. We find ways to win, that’s all that matters,” he said. “It’s a win, I’ll take it.”
Asked specifically about his own play, about stepping up now that the lights are on, he demurred.
“We got a win,” he said. “Good team win for us.”
A great Lowry game? Check. Not that interested in talking about it? Check.
After an off-season of change for the Raptors, there remain some constants.