TORONTO — It’s tempting to say there was no way Kyle Lowry was ever going to miss this one. A game being nationally televised in the United States; his Toronto Raptors’ chance to win a franchise-record 10th-straight contest; an opportunity for retribution against the New York Knicks, a team that stole a tight victory from the Raptors this past November.
As if Lowry—who was officially listed as questionable until about 30 minutes before tip-off with the sprained left wrist he suffered 48 hours earlier—would ever sit out this of all nights. Even his backcourt running mate, fellow all-star, and nightly Abbott and Costello tribute partner DeMar DeRozan wasn’t buying it.
“No, no—don’t believe that questionable stuff with Kyle,” DeRozan says, shaking his head. “Every day is questionable with Kyle.”
But as it happens, there was a very real chance that Lowry wouldn’t suit up Thursday night, and he really was testing his injury up until just a half hour before the game’s tip-off. The questionable label truly applied.
“It was a question—it was very much a question,” Lowry said after the Raptors’ 103-93 triumph over the Knicks. “I kind of gutted it out.”
And it’s a good thing he did if you’re a Raptors fan, because who knows if his team would’ve come away with this victory without him. Lowry made a major impact early, playing 20 of the game’s first 24 minutes and finishing a team-high plus-16 at the half, logging seven assists as he distributed around the floor, working to get each of his teammates going.
The Knicks were always going to have trouble keeping pace with the Raptors as three of their most crucial pieces (Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Jose Calderon) missed the game. But every time the visitors seemed to be making a run at leveling things out, Lowry was there to put an end to it.
With a little more than a minute left in the first quarter and the Raptors nursing a three-point lead, Lowry grabbed a defensive rebound and let an end-to-end rocket fly to a sprinting Terrence Ross, who threw down an easy dunk.
Immediately after, following an Arron Afflalo miss, Lowry carried the ball up the floor and noticed the Knicks were slow getting back. He kicked his engine up a gear and charged straight up the middle of the New York defence, drawing Knicks down into the key before whipping a nearly-blind pass to Ross once again, who drained a wide-open three to put the Raptors up by eight.
It continued to start the second quarter, as Lowry fed Bismack Biyombo through traffic for a powerful dunk, converted a driving lay-up on the Raptors’ next possession, and then grabbed one of his sneaky, right-place-right-time rebounds immediately after and quickly set up Patrick Patterson for a three-pointer. That gave Lowry his sixth assist in 12 minutes, and pushed the Raptors lead to 11.
And on and on it went. He drew fouls on off-balance, no-chance three-pointers, contorting his body in the air to draw contact. He hit seven of eight free-throws, and he drilled three of the five three-point attempts he wasn’t fouled on. Add game-highs of three steals, 10 assists and 26 points and you get a pretty clear picture of how an injured Lowry played like anything but that. In the end, he went from almost not dressing to putting in an incredibly productive 41-minute shift.
“He looked pretty good. He looked healthy and fresh,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “It’s still sore. It’s definitely still sore. I was hoping we’d have a chance to rest him more tonight. But they kept on hanging around. “
Lowry didn’t hide the fact his wrist was still bothering him after the game, and if you watched his night closely, you would’ve seen him pushing many of his passes one-handed with his right. He frequently stretched out the wrist during stoppages in play, and whenever he checked out of the game it was quickly burritoed in a thick wrap by the Raptors medical staff. But for Lowry, playing through it on Thursday night was of the highest importance.
“I just wanted to play for my teammates,” Lowry said. “I leave it all out there for those guys, because I know they’re going to leave it all out there for me.”
There’s impetus here. This past summer, shortly after the Raptors’ demoralizing first-round sweep at the efficient hands of the Washington Wizards, Lowry and DeRozan sat down to talk about the steps they wanted to take to make sure that never, ever happened to them again. Certain elements of that conversation will never be known (“some things we’re going to keep to ourselves,” Lowry says) but a major focal point was durability.
Last season the duo took turns watching their team play while wearing suits, as DeRozan missed 21 games in the middle of the year with a torn adductor longus tendon and Lowry sat out a handful at the end of the campaign with a variety of ailments before returning for the playoffs when he clearly wasn’t himself. All told, the pair barely had the chance to play together at full health and develop the take-over-the-game chemistry that they’re demonstrating on a nightly basis now.
“It just sucked—the imbalance of everything,” DeRozan says. “With me being hurt and then having to come back and get our rhythm. When Kyle wasn’t 100 per cent, and he was kind of breaking down. We only showed glimpses of what we could be when we’re healthy.
“And that’s one thing we really sat down this past summer and told ourselves we were going to work on. We’re going to have to be great for this team to take this next step. He did it with the weight loss, I did it with my approach to taking care of my body and really trying to elevate my game in different ways. And it’s definitely showing.”
It is. And Lowry knows that by toughing it out Thursday night—providing the same effort level and performance he would when fully healthy—he was showing something. Not only to himself, but to his closest teammate, too.
“It was a missed opportunity,” Lowry says of last season’s injury woes. “Now we’re doing those things that we both wanted to do last year—things we both still have aspirations of doing. We just want to be great.”