When Kawhi Leonard chose to join the Los Angeles Clippers last summer, it appeared the Toronto Raptors' championship window had been slammed shut as quickly as it had been opened. When the Raptors, behind coach Nick Nurse and significant improvement from Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell, finished the segmented regular season with the league's second-best winning percentage -- ahead of Leonard's Clippers and LeBron James -- it did little to dissuade the concerned rumblings about their chances of repeating.
Sure, they're a great regular-season team, the thinking went, but who's going to replace Kawhi as the clutch bucket-getter every championship team needs? Would it be Siakam? Maybe VanVleet?
After his spectacular performance in the Raptors' 125-122 Game 6 double-overtime win over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night, Kyle Lowry has emphatically announced that he's the closer Toronto was looking for, and he was right under our noses the whole time. While putting up 33 points, eight rebounds, six assists and just one turnover in 53 (!) minutes, Lowry grappled the Raptors to a Game 7 to keep the quest to repeat alive for at least one more game.
Lowry had 15 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, and he iced the game with a contorting fadeaway jumper to give the Raptors a four-point lead with just under 12 seconds left to play.
His performance was eerily reminiscent of another Game 6 -- in last year's Finals, when Lowry scored 21 first-half points in the series-clinching win over the Golden State Warriors -- and it makes you wonder why Lowry wasn't immediately pegged to fill Leonard's clutch shoes.
Even leading up to Game 6 you could hear the pundits screaming, "Siakam's gotta step up." "Siakam needs to be the best player on the Raptors." "They're not winning a title with Siakam playing like this." It seems as if Lowry's (largely undeserved) reputation for shrinking in the moment during the Raptors' three consecutive postseason beatdowns at the hands of LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers made us ignore him.
Lowry's playoff history is often coupled together with that of his former teammate and current best friend DeMar DeRozan, but Lowry's stats from those postseason runs were solid -- 17.9 points, 6.6 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 35 percent 3-point shooting. And just last week, with the Raptors facing a potential 3-0 deficit to the Celtics, Lowry came through with 31 points, eight assists, six rebounds and threw perhaps the most clutch pass in Raptor history to find OG Anunoby across the court for the game-winning 3-pointer.
What Lowry's done, and what every clutch playmaker needs to do, is display the willingness to adapt. In Game 3 he made up his mind to go to the rim early and often, essentially removing Toronto's horrid outside shooting from the equation. Just look at the very first possession of the game.
In Game 6, however, Lowry took a different approach. The Celtics were loading up the paint on his drives, so Lowry did it from the outside, knocking down 6-of-10 3-pointers and making a wide array of mid-range jumpers.
In Game 3, Lowry took 12 shots at the rim en route to his 31 points. In Wednesday's Game 6, he took just three shots at the rim on his way to 33. Side by side, the shot charts tell the story.
This is the sign of a veteran player who will take what the defense gives him rather than forcing the issue. Coach Nick Nurse and the Raptors consistently worked to get Kemba Walker switched onto Lowry in Game 6, and he made them pay the price. The debate about whether Lowry is a Hall of Famer has raged during this series, but it's hard to argue against him after what he's done over the past couple of weeks.
"I love having the privilege of standing there on the sideline to watch it, because it is something to see and watch. I don't ever really take it for granted," Nurse said on Sunday of Lowry's play. "It's a great skill to be able to play that hard. It's a skill that often isn't talked about. ... I've said this before and it's the highest compliment I can give him: I've never seen anybody play harder."
But the Raptors have learned that playing hard isn't enough. Eventually you need a closer to finish things off and make clutch plays. Last postseason it was Kawhi Leonard. This year it's Kyle Lowry. And he'll need to be just as brilliant down the stretch in Friday's Game 7 if Toronto is going to advance.
"We had to work hard for this win," Lowry said after Game 6. "For us, personally, that's what we do -- play hard. We go out there and play every possession like it's our last and find ways to pull out victories."