Nobody deserves the NBA Finals more than 'Playoff Lowry'

·NBA reporter

TORONTO — Perhaps it was just a coping mechanism after all the years of failure, but the otherwise feisty Kyle Lowry had committed all season to Kawhi Leonard’s mantra of never getting too high, and never getting too low.

That is, until it dawned on Lowry that he was finally headed to the NBA Finals in his 13th season. A goofy grin washed over his face as he hugged the ball in the dying seconds of Game 6, and in that moment he finally lost composure. Deafening chants of “LOW-RY” roared around Scotiabank Arena after the final buzzer, and the veteran guard was so giddy that it even corrupted the otherwise unshakable stoicism of Leonard, who couldn’t help but crack a smile.

Leonard grabbed all the headlines for his 29-point, 17-rebound, and seven-assist performance, but it took two All-Stars to come back from down 15 points to eliminate the Milwaukee Bucks. It was Lowry who drained back-to-back 3s to keep the Raptors close in the third quarter when nothing else was falling. Lowry also put Khris Middleton on skates before sneaking an impossible layup over Brook Lopez that bought the Raptors some breathing room in the fourth quarter. He picked off Middleton to set up Leonard’s poster on Giannis Antetokounmpo, while recording another four assists in the fourth that produced another 10 points.

Lowry also kept the coolest head under pressure. He was the only one in the building to recognize that the shot clock had malfunctioned, as he held onto the ball with 7.9 seconds left instead of throwing up a heave out of panic. Replays confirmed Lowry’s instincts — Pascal Siakam grazed the rim on his layup attempt before kicking it out, and so the Raptors had possession with the shot clock turned off. After a few laborious attempts, the Raptors finally inbounded the ball, and Siakam stepped to the line to ice the series, thanks to a head’s up read by Lowry.

To casual observers that propagated the “Playoff Lowry” label, his clutch heroics and his 19-5-5 average in six games against the Bucks came as a surprise. But to loyal followers, this was just what Lowry had always done. Momentum-shifting 3s, daredevil drives, timely defensive stops, brilliant playmaking, and every hustle play imaginable — Lowry not only delivered a win during the most important game in franchise history, but he changed the narrative about his career.

It was always unfair to Lowry that he became the punchline in any discussion of the Raptors’ shortcomings. Just as he did in the regular season, Lowry was a huge net positive and maximized the talent around him in the playoffs. He came up short when he was miscast as a No. 1 option, but that speaks more to DeMar DeRozan’s repeated inability to perform in his role. And yet it was Lowry who gained a reputation for choking, while others skated by the criticism. Now that Leonard is doing the job that DeRozan couldn’t, Lowry has settled into a more suitable secondary role, and his contributions are finally being appreciated.

This should be the official record of Lowry’s tenure in Toronto: He is the heart and soul of the Raptors, and this run of six-straight postseason appearances would not be possible without him. The biggest break in Raptors history was James Dolan being too jaded by his previous dealings with Masai Ujiri to pull the trigger on a trade in 2013. Lowry had his bags packed for New York, but instead he stuck around, blossomed into a star, and took the Raptors from the basement to the top.

Lowry always sacrificed for the sake of winning. He was first the little pitbull that somehow bum-rushed his way to the hoop, but Lowry eventually developed into one of the most prolific shooters in the league when he rounded into his 30s. When DeRozan emerged as a ball-dominant wing, Lowry learned to be effective playing off the ball. And when Leonard arrived along with Siakam’s breakout, Lowry again changed his role to become one of the best passers in the game.

There’s a reason why Lowry is the lone holdover from their first playoff run in 2014. DeRozan gave way to Leonard, Jonas Valanciunas became Marc Gasol, Terrence Ross was flipped for Serge Ibaka, and Dwane Casey was replaced by Nick Nurse, all because the Raptors needed upgrades at those positions to win at the highest level. Lowry stayed because the Raptors maintained that he could be the engine of a championship contender so long as they surrounded him with the right pieces, and now their faith in Lowry has been rewarded.

That’s why there was such an outpouring of emotion inside Scotiabank Arena when Lowry finally got his hands on that elusive Eastern Conference championship trophy. He was always a winner despite his reputation, and nobody deserved to be in the Finals more than “Playoff Lowry.”

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