Kyle Lowry was not the star of the show in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. That was Bam Adebayo, whose 31 points (on 15-for-22 shooting!) were essential for a Miami Heat team that was without Jimmy Butler in the second half on Saturday. But while Lowry scored a modest 11 points on 4-for-11 shooting, his fingerprints were all over Miami's 109-103 win.
His most memorable play came late in the fourth quarter. It was classic Lowry: sneaky, smart and totally spur-of-the-moment. With 48 seconds left, the Boston Celtics were still alive, if only barely; down by seven points after a made free throw, Grant Williams inbounded the ball to Marcus Smart, but Lowry darted in between them, got his hands on the ball, saved it from going out of bound and found Miami's Max Strus cutting to the basket for a layup. Lowry screamed in jubilation when Boston called a timeout:
Hours before Lowry threw that dagger, he set the tone. On the Heat's very first possession, he pushed the ball off an offensive rebound and set up Strus for a transition 3. All season, Lowry has been the player most responsible for Miami's awesome transition offense because of plays like this:
On the very next possession, Boston pushed the ball right back at the Heat. Lowry picked up big man Al Horford, fronted him in the post and came up with his first of four steals:
A few possessions later, after a Horford layup, Lowry caught the Celtics napping with a hit-ahead pass to Butler for a layup, plus the foul.
This made Boston coach Ime Udoka call his first timeout of the game. Udoka described Lowry as "the head of the snake" for Miami in terms of pushing the pace.
"That's what he does," Udoka said. "We talked about that before the game. That's the impact he has on the game."
After the timeout, Jayson Tatum missed a runner, and, four seconds later, Lowry cashed a pull-up 3 in transition, giving Miami a 14-4 lead. It was 39-18 by the end of the quarter.
All season, Lowry has been the player most responsible for getting the Heat transition opportunities. This is particularly important against the best halfcourt defense in the NBA. "They're tall, they're aggressive," Lowry said. "But for me, it's about the pace and getting us easy looks." In the second quarter, he got a hockey assist on an Adebayo dunk because he got rid of the ball the moment that he caught it:
Lowry played 29 minutes, returning from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for two games in the first round, four games in the second round and the first two games of the conference finals. He has not shot well when he has been able to play in these playoffs, but he made timely jumpers in Game 3. When the Heat started the second half with a few empty possessions, Lowry knocked down his patented pull-up 3 going left. When Smart returned from an injury scare and cut Miami's lead to 10 points, Lowry quieted the wild crowd with a tough step-back over Horford.
"He's special," Strus said. "Obviously having him back helped, especially on a night where we lose J.B. So to have his leadership and playoff experience was huge for us to keep us grounded and keep everything positive throughout it all. He's been in these moments plenty of time in his career, so to have him here with us is huge."
This is a player who has made six All-Star teams, won a gold medal and scored 26 points in a game that clinched an NBA championship. All along, though, Lowry has done much of his damage in what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra calls "the plays in between." When Lowry senses an opportunity to attack, when his team needs him to improvise, when there is a loose ball or a broken play, he tends to make something happen. On Saturday, his crunch-time steal wasn't even the only time he caught Smart by surprise:
Lowry's mere presence gave Miami a boost defensively, simply because Boston does not target him the way it targets Gabe Vincent. Offensively, the Heat needed all the playmaking they could get -- they weren't that great in the halfcourt during the regular season, and with Duncan Robinson playing a lesser role, Tyler Herro struggling and Butler unavailable after halftime, they had to find ways to survive. In moments like this, it helps to have a point guard who is constantly looking for little edges to exploit.