Brooklyn — Once upon a time, Kyle Lowry was a man with an attitude problem. He’ll tell you as much.
If you only started following the Toronto Raptors this year, or if you’re back to this most pleasingly unexpected version after stepping away for a little while, you’ve never met that guy.
The Kyle Lowry on display this season and in particular here this remarkable night in Brooklyn is the kind of athlete we all feel good paying money to watch. He plays for money, for sure. But no one competes like he does just because of money.
The Raptors’ 87-79 win on the road at the Barclays Center was just more proof. The Nets are the NBA’s $200-million team. The Raptors are the franchise that can’t shoot straight. The last time they won a playoff game on the road was May 6, 2001.
And then they pull this one off with a display of guts and resiliency and simply the will to hang around that can only be a worthy introduction to anyone who hasn’t been paying attention.
"It was an ugly game and all the intangibles had to come into play," said Raptors reserve Chuck Hayes who made his second appearance of the series as the Raptors depth was tested.
Do wins like that change how people look at a team?
"Probably," said Hayes. "I’m pretty sure a lot of people haven’t seen us play this year."
What they saw were countless examples of a team tougher to kill than Rocky.
Consider: The Raptors are nursing an 83-79 lead with 2:25 to play in the fourth quarter when they make one of their relatively rare turnovers – the 12 they finished with a big improvement on the nearly 20 they averaged through three games – and somehow one-legged Lowry gets back defensively to steal the ball from the Nets' Paul Pierce.
That shouldn’t have happened.
A few moments later there is Lowry lofting up a running sky hook over the outstretched arm of Kevin Garnett -- "I think that was first time I shot that in a game this year – I did it in practice like, once," Lowry said -- to put the Raptors up by six with 1:13 to play and seal the Nets fate.
The Raptors hadn’t scored for three minutes yet were able to extend their lead with eight straight defensive stops.
It wasn’t pretty. It was as grindy and gritty and unlikely a win on the road in the playoffs game can get. But it counts and Lowry was there to be counted on.
At some point during the third game of the Raptors first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets Lowry tweaked or bonked or twisted his right knee. He’s had problems with it before this season.
As a pending free agent you’d think he’d worry about these things.
The question going into Game 4, with the Nets hoping to put a stranglehold on the Raptors and head back to the ACC up 3-1, was how badly Lowry was going to be affected.
But he found a way to scratch out 22 points and fight though a game where he picked up five fouls, a few because he had to reach to make up for his feet not getting him where he needed to go.
"We know Kyle is probably the most beat up, banged up player on this team," said Raptors forward Patrick Patterson. "From his elbow to his leg to his eye and he just continues to battle and that’s more motivation for us."
This is all so interesting, a tale of first impressions made and reputations that can follow a guy.
So shaky was his reputation that when Lowry emerged this season as the closest thing the Raptors have to a true franchise player – or at least a co-star alongside DeMar DeRozan – there was some concern inside the team and outside that this was Lowry on his best behaviour, a free-agent-to-be scrubbing his image to make sure he can maximize his return this summer.
But as things went along and Lowry kept sacrificing his body – he led the NBA in charges taken – and kept playing with a level of ferocity that he’s been held out as a an example for MLSE’s hockey team to follow, it became more and more apparent: This guy is what fans want, someone who simply plays until there is no gas left in the tank.
Sunday night was just another example.
"I’m okay, it’s controllable," Lowry said of his knee when asked if he needed to be mindful of it heading into free agency. "We can do what we need to do to get through the playoffs. It’s nothing I need surgery for or anything like that. It’s definitely a pain, but I’m not going to worry about it, I’m not going to complain about it, I’m just going to do my job."
There’s fighting through things, and playing what a number of his teammates were calling a must-win game while clearly hurt.
It was more than a little sore. During warmups it was hard to tell how much Lowry was bothered as he moved so slowly and gingerly it was hard to gauge. He was saving his bullets.
Did Lowry light a charge in his team?
It seemed so early as everything went absolutely, incredibly right. He scored the Raptors first basket and chipped in with a couple of more threes.
He was helped along by Amir Johnson, who went 5 of 6 from the floor and helped Toronto jump out to a 35-22 lead. Then DeRozan caught fire again – "He’s turning into a superstar before our eyes," said Lowry -- as the Raptors pushed their first half lead to a high of 17 thanks to their one all-star scoring 20 of his 24 in the first half.
It wasn’t pretty. Lowry had a hard time on defence against Deron Williams and he looked plain awkward at other times, but the contributions were welcomed. It was the statement that was even more valuable.
Here was a guy who some might have dismissed with a suspect heart, playing for a contract, playing his heart out on one leg in the part of the season when he doesn’t really have a contract at all.
As the game went on the Raptors as a unit were on fumes. Patterson was having muscle cramps. Johnson left the game after getting crushed drawing a charge on Pierce. Lowry got his eye scratched. Foul trouble became an issue. They finished the quarter with their four cast-offs from the Sacramento Kings on the floor and a broken Lowry, clinging to the game with their fingernails.
They shot just 4 of 21 in the quarter; at one point they were 1 of 14. Then Lowry twisted his way to the basket for a lay-up, got fouled and made the free throw. Then he hit a 3-pointer. Then he drew a charge, forcing a turnover.
He did what he could.
The game was unraveling. Lowry was still in it, still desperate. In the end he was rewarded, all of Raptors Nation was.
Was he fighting for love? For pride? Who knows? No one fights like that just for money.
Either way the Raptors live on to fight again.