The Toronto Raptors are forever a lesson in improbability.
What if I told you Kyle Lowry would score 30 points on 15 shots, that Kawhi Leonard would add another 31 points, and that the Milwaukee Bucks would shoot a woeful 11-of-44 from 3-point range but the Raptors would still lose?
It somehow seems even more unlikely than the first-ever Game 7 game-winner needing four bounces before going in, right?
Perhaps it’s just that the Raptors have extended their Game 1 voodoo, where they are now 3-15 to open a series lifetime. But that’s what makes it seem all the more inexplicable.
If the claims to Lowry’s inadequacy as a playoff performer are exaggerated, it’s at least fair to say that he has had his fair share of Game 1 struggles. Yet, here he was in the opening game of the Eastern Conference final, playing Batman to Leonard’s Robin, scoring at will, knocking down a playoff career-high seven 3-pointers, pushing the pace and keeping the Raptors offence in a flow that reminded you of their best basketball from the regular season, and still making all the KLOE plays that show he’s always one step ahead.
“It's been a while since he's had one of those nights where every time he pulled up you thought he was going to make it,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “Every time he let it go tonight, you were like, ‘That's going in.’
“And that was good to see because we've seen those a lot in the regular season. But he was great. He was fighting like heck out there. I thought he threw his body in front of people on a few things, didn't get the whistle on a few. He always draws charges and there were tons of charges going on out there, but he still was taking them. That's his thing. And he was good. He was awesome.”
Nothing makes the loss more deflating than the 1-for-23 shooting from the not-Kawhi-or-Lowry Raptors in the second half. Leonard had a crucial 15 in the third quarter when Toronto’s 3-point shooting fell flat — making just 1-of-8 attempts in the quarter before Pascal Siakam buried an unlikely pull-up attempt at the buzzer — and Lowry shot 5-of-7 in the fourth that included clutch 3 after clutch 3 while the rest of the Raptors, including Leonard, combined to shoot 0-for-15.
Leading by 11 after a quarter, eight at halftime, seven with 12 minutes remaining, and holding not only a 7-0 record with double-digit leads during this post-season but a 45-1 record on the season when carrying a lead of seven or more entering the fourth, it will take a tremendous show of character for the Raptors to bounce back on Friday.
“Growing, it’s not always on your terms,” Marc Gasol said prior to the Raptors’ now famous Game 7 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. “You’ve got to continue to grow whether you you like how it’s going or not. You, things go your way or not, that’s what growth means. It’s especially when things don’t go your way that you show your growth.”
For Lowry to put up the performance he did despite some concerning regular season numbers against Milwaukee shows tremendous character. He averaged just 6.3 points and shot 1-for-20 from 3 over three regular season games against them including a nightmare zero-point performance in Toronto. Familiar foes in Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill theoretically threatened to make his job very difficult.
“We talked about, pre-game, they've got a bunch of athletic guards and they run a bunch of guys at him and they're doing a decent job of limiting his touches,” Nurse said after the game. “So, I thought it was good that he could get the ball as much as he did. He stepped into all of them.”
New playoff high 7 made 3s pic.twitter.com/MHuLNz2o7g
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) May 16, 2019
The strategy worked to perfection and Lowry getting looks off Siakam penetration is exactly what got him going early. Having seen the Bucks consistently trap Lowry in pick-and-roll action when he’s the ball handler, the Raptors turned the tables by using Lowry off the ball more often and even as a screener for Siakam off which he would aggressively seek out his own shot.
In the conference semis, Philadelphia was happy to go into ‘Anyone but Kawhi’ mode. It caught Lowry and, to a far greater extent, Gasol, unprepared to shoot. After getting blown out in Philadelphia, specifically, Lowry made it clear the team needed to give Leonard more help.
Lowry and Gasol are, at their very cores, players who prefer to consistently showcase how much better they can make their teammates, that their greatest strength is putting someone else in a position to succeed. An opponent that looks to play to that mindset can now instead look to take away passing lanes first and contest shots second as the theoretical recovery time increases with an open man not even looking at the basket.
Nurse did an excellent job of putting Lowry in position to succeed, and by pushing the ball every time he got it off a stop on the other end, Lowry was able to keep the team offence humming as well.
That was something that dissipated in the second half, and the collective failure to control the tempo saw the Raptors’ offensive rating drop from 115.7 points per-100 possessions in the first half to 80.4 in the second half.
“Our pace wasn't good enough in the second half,” Lowry said after the game. “I think that's where we struggled in the second half. Our pace wasn't good enough. I think the pace that we played with in the first half was the pace we needed to play with throughout the game. I think that will be a big thing for us: pace and dictating the pace of the game.”
Siakam and Gasol combined to shoot 4-of-15 from two-point range and 4-of-16 from beyond the arc, but neither should be discouraged by the result of a shot that comes to them within the natural flow of the offence. There were times when they took themselves out of their own rhythm with that split-second indecision of questioning whether they were taking the right shot, and in a series where the margin for error is so small, that can’t continue.
With Leonard and Antetokounmpo locked in a titan clash for best player in the east and arguably the world, Lowry showed on this night that he’s still capable of being the third-best player in the series. If the rest of the Raptors lose all the remaining battles, though, winning the war becomes that much more improbable.
More Raptors coverage from Yahoo Sports