After Game 2 of their playoff series – a win in Toronto – Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry ran into GM Masai Ujiri in the corridor leading to the locker room.
In tones of concern, Ujiri asked about his indispensable’s problem right knee. Lowry looked down at his leg, as if noticing it dangling there for the first time.
“It hurts,” he said. “But ain’t nothing can stop me from playing.”
However this playoff series ends, Lowry is in the midst of building a legend in Toronto, not as a tough guy by basketball standards, but as some sort of mythic force in the Bobby Baun sense.
Lowry reinjured the knee in Game 3. He skipped practice on Saturday. He spent most of Sunday’s pregame in therapy. Then he went out and won the second most important game in franchise history. He had a lot of help, but Lowry won it.
Toronto’s 87-79 win in a game of wild swings makes this series a best-of-three. For the first time, it also suggests Toronto could win this thing. Top to bottom, Brooklyn is a better team. Galumphing Nets afterthought Andray Blatche – who played only 13 minutes on Sunday – would immediately be Toronto’s best power forward. The Nets are deeper and smarter. But it’s beginning to occur to all of us that they lack the heart – whatever that means. You can’t explain it, but it’s out there to see.
Lowry contributed early and late – so, when it mattered.
The numbers were great – 22 points and a game-high plus-14. The numbers were the very least of it.
He played the last 6 1/2 minutes with five fouls. That didn’t stop him from reaching out on a Paul Pierce break to poke the ball away – a play that helped turn the game. It didn’t stop him from running to the rim.
When he encountered Kevin Garnett on the game’s key late play, he pulled up and sky-hooked him. Kevin Garnett has a foot on Lowry. Later, the Raptor would admit that it was the first time he’d tried the move this year, but that he had practised it. Once.
“It looked good,” Lowry purred. “It looked real good.”
Probably not from where Garnett was standing.
Before we get too carried away, it’s important to note that the Nets made only three field goals in the fourth quarter.
Asked (stupidly) to explain his defence, Toronto coach Dwane Casey said drily, “They missed a lot of easy shots. That was the scheme.”
There were other heroes – DeMar DeRozan, who seemed to be playing a personal game of HORSE in the first half, making shots that should not be made; Amir Johnson, deploying his pick-and-roll skills to great effect; the Sacramento crew, helping to hang on for the first few minutes of the fourth, when it seemed certain Brooklyn would pull away.
But Lowry was the story. If you watched this game on Sunday night and Kyle Lowry did not become your new favourite athlete, then you watched it wrong.
When Lowry came out for the prelims, he was clearly in pain. When play stopped, he stopped as well, slowing to a hopalong crawl. When it started up again, he was selectively blowing through people. Somehow, weakness makes Lowry stronger.
“It’s controllable,” Lowry said. “It’s nothing where I need surgery or anything like that. It’s nothing that serious. It’s definitely a pain. I’m not going to worry about it. I’m not going to complain about it. I’m just going to go out there and do my job.”
Lowry’s job has become all encompassing. It’s more than points and field marshalling. He has become a moral exemplar. The whole team is hurt (When centre Jonas Valanciunas was asked who is still fully fit, he replied (nightly scratch): “Julyan Stone.”)
There will be no panic in Brooklyn – the Nets are too well blooded for that – but there doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency, either. After the game, they did the usual – banging on about experience and all that ‘never too high, never too low’ nonsense that stops making sense in the playoffs. This is all highs and lows. If you can’t feel that, you’re not paying close enough attention.
As for experience, the Raptors were up 17 halfway through the first quarter. Ten in-game minutes later, the Nets had a five-point advantage. A great team doesn’t let that sort of momentum swing back the other way. The Nets are good. But they’re a very long way from great.
And Toronto? Who knows how good Toronto can be.
Asked if they’d yet played their best, Lowry and DeRozan said simultaneously, “No. Uh uh.”
If they can manage that, we’ve got a lot more than a series. We’ve got a great coming out.
Follow me on Twitter: @cathalkelly