Kyle Lowry proving once again he’s the most important Raptor of all time

Kyle Lowry catches up with Eric Smith following the Toronto Raptors' dramatic Game 7 buzzer-beater win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

TORONTO — If you don’t appreciate Kyle Lowry after that one, if you didn’t detect the myriad ways he was absolutely essential to that game’s outcome, if you can’t recognize all the tenacious, thankless, imperative things he does for the Toronto Raptors, well, it’s just never going to happen for you. Be on your way. This one ain’t for you.

Kawhi Leonard doesn’t launch that unforgettable shot, and the ball doesn’t arc up over Joel Embiid’s seven-foot-five wingspan, and the rim doesn’t thud four times, each one quieter than the last, and an arena, a city, a nation doesn’t explode at once, without Lowry making all the plays he made in that game. None of it happens. Not without him.

Because there was Lowry, a little more than a minute earlier, playing suffocating, relentless defence against the Philadelphia 76ers, careening over one screen, under another, denying a dribble hand-off, forcing the Sixers into a trap, and, ultimately, ambushing Embiid for this instinctual, anticipatory turnover that produced a Pascal Siakam fast-break bucket the other way:

And there he was, in the third quarter, as the Raptors were trying to undo the damage of a 16-0 Sixers run, barrelling in for not one, but two offensive rebounds, setting up his teammates with great looks and extending a possession that culminated in this Leonard three, and the Raptors pulling to within one:

And it was Lowry, only a couple possessions prior to Leonard’s unbelievable scenes, getting switched onto Embiid — a massive man with, conservatively, a foot and 70 pounds on him, who tried to take advantage of a considerable mismatch in the post only to have the ball jabbed right out of his giant hands:

We could do this all day. Watch practically any Raptors possession from Sunday’s Game 7 win, particularly in the second half which Lowry played every second of, and you’ll see him ricocheting around like a racquetball beneath the basket, swatting at any pass that strayed near his orbit, crashing to the floor, hustling to his feet, and crashing to the floor again.

You’ll see the uncompromising defence, the contact he absorbed, the loose balls he went flying after, the sprinting Sixers he stepped in front of only to get steamrolled for charges. You’ll see the sheer piss and vinegar that he played with.

That he did most of it with his left hand heavily wrapped in black tape, thanks to a thumb sprain suffered in the second quarter, has somehow been lost in all the commotion. It appeared to occur on a drive to the basket, as Lowry got tangled up with Sixers guard James Ennis and crash-landed along the baseline. Lowry hits the floor like that a lot — it seemed innocuous enough. Until he got up holding his thumb and jogged straight back to Toronto’s locker room.

“I fell, it popped out, and I popped it back in,” Lowry said later, monotonously, as if he was listing his day’s errands. “It kind of was loose. I was just trying to figure out how to pass the ball. I couldn’t really pass the ball and grip the ball. But that doesn’t matter. I’m fine, I played. We won the game. We’ll get some rest and try to heal it up as fast as possible.”

The laws of nature and human anatomy suggest such an expeditious recovery is unlikely, considering the Eastern Conference Finals begins Wednesday in Milwaukee against the breakneck and versatile Bucks. Even if he remains completely immobile, which he won’t, Lowry’s thumb is bound to be an impediment in his next game, especially if it was already in a condition that allowed it to so easily “pop out” Sunday night.

And this is only what we know of. Lowry’s long battled back injuries, including a recurrence that caused him to miss nine games in a 10-game stretch this winter. Then, there were two separate ankle injuries during the regular season’s stretch run in March and April, which held Lowry out of five of his team’s final 14 games. No one’s healthy at this time of year, of course. But Lowry, who turned 33 last month, is carrying damage that goes beyond the expected.

This is merely the toll paid for the way he plays. Lowry’s leading the playoffs with 10 charges drawn (the Bucks have six as a team) and 32 loose balls recovered. He’s third in deflections with 37, trailing only Ben Simmons (47) and Damian Lillard (40). His 41 box outs lead all guards, and the 59 fouls he’s drawn rank seventh among those still playing. He’s just throwing his body into everything.

“He plays all out — that’s what makes him the player he is,” said Marc Gasol, no stranger to physical play himself. “That’s why he’s special.”

And he looks almost a little too excited when he gets switched onto a body much bigger than his while defending, which happens often considering how fluidly the Raptors can rotate with matchups one through four. Over the last two weeks, it wasn’t unusual to see the six-foot, 196-pound Lowry digging his heels into the floor in the post against the six-foot-nine, 235-pound Tobias Harris, who he was the primary defender on for 73 possessions in the series, according to NBA.com.

It’s actually remarkable to look at that NBA.com matchups data and see what a solid job Lowry did in the series defending such a wide array of players. He spent at least 45 possessions covering five different Sixers, and all of them turned the ball over three or more times, and nearly all — save for Ennis by the slightest of margins — averaged fewer points per 100 possessions than their season average (PTS DIFF in the chart below):

Lowry’s matchups vs. Sixers

Possessions FGM FGA FG% TOV PTS PTS DIFF
JJ Redick 173 8 21 38.10% 5 25 -11.8
James Ennis 126 6 13 46.20% 3 20 0.5
Jimmy Butler 79 7 18 38.90% 4 20 -1.2
Tobias Harris 73 8 17 47.10% 3 19 -1.3
Ben Simmons 45 3 7 42.90% 5 6 -9.8

“That’s what he does. That’s who he’s got to be. And that’s who he is for us,” said Fred VanVleet, the Raptors sixth-man. “He means so much to this team — without scoring. He makes a big shot here and there. But we saw the steal there late. We saw a charge. We saw a couple more plays — an assist, setting screens. And some big rebounds and some tap-outs.

“We know what he does. We know what he brings to the table. That stuff is non-negotiable. And he brings it every night. The shot-making comes and goes. But, obviously, we’re lucky to have that kind of guy on our team.”

That Lowry is the most important Toronto Raptor of all time is not up for debate. There’s no case to make against it. He’s been fundamental to the franchise’s current golden era — a staple of this six-season run of contention which has seen the Raptors post the NBA’s fourth-highest winning percentage since 2013-14. He’s played more playoff games in a Toronto uniform than anyone. And he’s about to become the only Raptor to play meaningful minutes — with apologies to Norman Powell — in each of the team’s conference final appearances.

In the 17 seasons of Raptors basketball before Lowry came to town, Toronto had never won 50 games, had qualified for the post-season only five times, and had won a playoff series exactly once. In the seven seasons since, they’ve won 50 four times, reached the playoffs six straight years, and won six series.

Lowry has led the team in win shares during four of those seven seasons. He holds three of the franchise’s top 15 playoff performances ever by game score. Chris Bosh has four, Vince Carter has three, DeMar DeRozan has two. Leonard does not have one.

And that Lowry’s here, now, after all these years, carrying all that mileage, playing at the level he is, making the selfless, crucial plays the Raptors can’t win without, is nothing short of remarkable. He’s everywhere doing everything. If you aren’t seeing it, you aren’t watching closely enough.

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