TORONTO — At 4:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon, Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry changed into his warm-up gear, had his sprained left ankle wrapped tight in tape, laced up a pair of red sneakers, and gave it a go.
In an empty Air Canada Centre, he ran up and down the floor, tried to sidestep laterally, jumped from different angles, took a few shots, and attempted to simulate the movements he wanted to make in three hours’ time.
It didn’t go well, but Lowry wasn’t quitting. Two hours later, after the Raptors training staff threw everything they had at the ankle—which Lowry injured in Game 2 of this series when his teammate, Norman Powell, was thrown into the outside of his lower left leg—he tried again. Running, cutting, jumping, shooting. And again, it didn’t feel right.
Back to the locker room. More treatment. More arguing with a training staff that was trying to tell him it wasn’t going to happen. By 6:40 p.m., it was time for the Raptors to take the floor and warm up. Lowry ran out with his teammates, joining the lay-up line and giving it one last attempt. He took some runs at the basket, jumped a bit, and tried to move laterally. Same feeling, same pain, same tightness.
At 6:45 p.m., Lowry made his way back to the Raptors locker room, and with exactly four minutes until tip-off, he finally accepted the inevitable.
"I tried, man. I was out there warming up, trying everything," a solemn Lowry said after his Raptors fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 115-94, while he watched from the bench. "I tried three times. I did everything I could. It just didn’t work out for me.
"It just wasn’t right, man. I’m not the guy that makes excuses. I’m not the guy that ever wants to sit out. I’ve played through tons of injuries before. Honestly, I just wouldn’t have been myself and wouldn’t have been able to help my team like I needed to."
And that’s what it came down to. Lowry’s played at well below 100 per cent countless times throughout his career. You’d be hard pressed to find a game when he wasn’t grinding through something. But this particular injury is simply too limiting.
Remember, he’s still only two months removed from wrist surgery and hasn’t complained about it once. Just last week, in a game against the Milwaukee Bucks, he couldn’t even sit on the bench during stoppages in play, a tight back forcing him to lie flat on the floor when he wasn’t in the game. He scored 16 points and was a plus-29 in 36 minutes that night. Just two days later, he played 44 minutes and scored 13 as the Raptors eliminated the Bucks in one of the crazier games of these playoffs.
But Friday night he just couldn’t do it. His ankle wouldn’t let him.
"It’s not like I didn’t want to play. I wanted to play. I wanted to be out there. I tried everything I could," Lowry said. "When I warmed up, I went out there hoping—hoping it would just get better.
"It’s just too sore, man. It’s very sore," he continued. "I can’t move the way I want to move. I can’t cut the way I want to cut. I wouldn’t be able to guard the way I want to guard. I couldn’t move and then be explosive. Imagine trying to chase Kyrie [Irving] around like that."
Irving, the Cavaliers guard who scored 16 points on 7-of-21 shooting in Friday’s game, is a tough assignment when you have two ankles underneath you, never mind only one. So the decision was made. Lowry sat. And the Raptors lost.
"He was limping badly. He just couldn’t go," said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. "He wanted to. The doctors, the trainers, [director of sports science] Alex [McKechnie], the medical people, they’re telling him, ‘You shouldn’t try to go.’ Because he was in so much pain."
But Lowry still tried. Even his teammates weren’t aware of whether he was going to play or not, learning that Lowry was out when his name wasn’t read in the starting lineup over the PA system minutes before tip-off.
Of course, the Raptors training staff is right. It’s a severe injury. Really, Lowry should probably stay out of action for at least a week, probably more. But there might not be games in a week. There is a game Sunday—one that, if the Raptors lose it, could be his team’s last for a very long while.
That’s why Lowry will do everything he can over the next 36 hours or so—ice, heat, ultrasounds, stem treatment, everything—to get his ankle recovered enough that he can be on the floor for tip-off Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET. It won’t get anywhere near 100 per cent by then. It might not even be 50. But it just has to be good enough.
"That’s my goal. My goal is to be out there playing on Sunday," Lowry said. "We’ll see. It’s tough because it’s a different type of ankle injury. If you look at how the injury happened, my ankle went in. You don’t usually have it go in. It was a football injury—an American football type of injury where a guy cuts down on you. It rolled in, not out. So, it’s a pretty different injury. If it rolled out, I’m sure I would play."
That would help the Raptors immensely. Without Lowry on the floor Friday night, DeMar DeRozan had to carry a much heavier load, and the Cavaliers were able to throw more defensive attention at him whenever he had the ball. And when he didn’t, the Raptors were shooting woefully from beyond the arc, connecting on only two of their 18 three-point attempts. Lowry, unafraid to pull up from anywhere on the floor, led the Raptors in the regular season, shooting 41 per cent from three-point land.
It’s worth nothing that Cory Joseph did an admirable job filling in for Lowry on Friday. He logged 33 minutes, played strong defence against Irving, and did particularly good work against the Cavaliers’ pick-and-rolls. But the Raptors are a different team without Lowry, a lesser team. A team that will have a very difficult time beating a Cavaliers side that’s absolutely rolling through these playoffs.
They’ll need whatever effort Lowry can provide if they’re going to do what has never happened before in the history of the NBA and come back from their current three-game deficit. And that starts Sunday when a loss means the end of it all.
"It’s a must-win game. It’s a don’t-get-embarrassed game—a don’t-get-swept game," Lowry said. "The goal is always to try to win a series. But the goal right now is to take one game at a time and try not to get swept. And if I can be out there, and I can help my team, I promise you I will."