TORONTO — Well after midnight, well after 20,000 frustrated fans had left the building and long after the Miami Heat had filed out and all the talking and the explaining was done, Kyle Lowry was trying to find the player he knows he is but no one has seen for nearly six weeks now.
First at the Air Canada Centre practice court and later on the main floor, the bright lights still on, the crowd gone save for a few security guards watching, the Raptors’ most important player put his black hoodie up to block out the noise and looked for his game.
No assistant coaches, no one around to rebound, no one to talk with. Sometimes you just have to figure it out on your own, retreat into the game like you’ve been doing since you were a kid, stepping back into the place where you could go and always solve your problems, or put them aside for a little while.
That’s where Lowry went while most of Toronto was sleeping. The two-time all-star is the engine that makes the Raptors go and after sputtering during Toronto’s close escape against the Indiana Pacers, in Game 1 against the Miami Heat he blew a tire, ran out of gas, began leaking oil – pick your analogy or use all three.
Lowry played, by his standards, a terrible basketball game at the moment his team desperately needed even an average performance by him.
He’ll be on every highlight reel for his half-court heave at the buzzer that pushed the game into overtime. But that was makeup on pig and he knows it.
The Raptors’ 102-96 loss dropped them to 0-1 in the series that resumes on Thursday night. Lowry has until then to figure things out.
That’s why he was still shooting after midnight, still trying to find out why – after a season in which he set a franchise record for three-pointers made while shooting a career-high 39 per cent from deep – he can’t hit water if he fell out of a boat right now.
“It didn’t mean nothing,” he said in between post-game shooting practices of his buzzer-beater. “We lost the game. It didn’t mean anything. We lost the game.”
And while it’s never truly fair to pin a loss in a playoff game on one player, it’s hard not to think the Raptors would have won their opening game if he doesn’t shoot 3-of-13 from the floor and 1-of-7 from three – if he found a way to create more offence than the four assists he managed in regulation.
The Raptors survived a seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers with Lowry shooting just 31 per cent in part because he drove the play in other ways. But they can’t beat the Miami Heat if he’s the tentative, second-guessing version of himself he was at the ACC on Tuesday night.
“I passed up a lot of shots tonight. I passed up a lot, a ton of shots, actually,” he said. “With the poor shooting, I think that’s what it did to me a little bit more tonight.
“I think I passed up some shots, for sure.”
With the loss the Raptors squandered home court. They squandered a buzzer-beater that gave them the gift of overtime. The Raptors earned the chance to have fortune shine on them again and they gave it all away.
The hope was that with the weight of history removed, the Raptors would play more freely. Unmoored by the past, they could rise.
The second round represented house money, and almost no one needed some extra cash in his jeans more than Lowry, who is 8-of-49 from three in eight playoff games.
Well, it would be great to report that Toronto used its good fortune wisely, soberly – that they looked on it as an advantage to be invested and leveraged.
But no. The one thing the Raptors have proven over time is that they are the enemies of prosperity. Work all season to get the higher seed and start the post-season on home court? Sure, and then donate their advantage in Game 1.
Raptors fans have seen it before, but never quite like this. Given a second chance at post-season life, the Raptors came out in the opening game of their second-round series against the Miami Heat, took their house money and partied like 21-year-olds in Vegas.
They held the Heat to 38 per cent shooting and forced four turnovers in the first quarter but were tied 18-18 after 12 minutes. They won the battle of the paint, they forced Miami into 20 turnovers for the game and held them to 90 points in regulation and lost.
Lowry was the one doing most of the squandering, a trust-fund kid on a bender. He was shooting 2-of-11 from the floor and 0-of-5 from three when he yanked on that slot machine one more time. He had no choice, really.
His toss from half-court at the buzzer sent one of the wilder, stranger playoff games in recent memory at the ACC — and that’s saying something with this crew — into overtime.
“Unfortunately I had a very good look at it,” said Heat star Dwyane Wade. “And I thought ‘this is not about to happen.’ When it goes in you’re just crushed for a minute, I think I hit my knees, because you want to wrap a game up like that in the playoffs in regulation. But you have to regroup, you have five more minutes to play.”
He needn’t have worried. The Heat went on an 8-0 run to start the extra five minutes. The Raptors scrapped and clawed till the end but one miracle comeback was all they had in them. Wade scored seven of his 24 points in overtime and stole the ball from DeMar DeRozan as the Raptors guard was trying to set up another game-tying three in the final seconds.
Lowry’s lucky heave will go down as a footnote on a loss that will sting. The search for answers began soon after.
“It’s definitely a feel, just trying to get the touch back,” he said of his late night session. “I don’t know where it’s at. It’s kind of mind-boggling right now. It’s frustrating. I’m not going to shy away from the criticism or anything. I’m going to continue to be aggressive, shoot shots and take the onus.”
Lowry’s been adamant that his shooting elbow – he was treated for bursitis in March and his shooting has been shaky since – is not the problem and evidence would support that. He’s been doing extra shooting, something you would avoid if the elbow was irritated. At one point during the second half, after a whistle, the ball came to him and he snapped up a 40-footer for fun – not something you would do if shooting caused you pain.
The storyline for the Heat series set up nicely. Way back when Miami’s Goran Dragic took Lowry’s starting point guard job while both played for the Houston Rockets. In Game 1 Dragic played like he wanted to prove why.
Dragic started tentatively – at one point he was 1-of-8 from the floor until he made a couple of layups in the last minute of the first half – but then got steadily stronger. He scored 10 of his 26 points in the third quarter as the Heat moved out to a 68-63 lead, by which point frustrated Raptors fans were, in pockets, beginning to heckle, angry that a winnable game seemed to be slipping away with the threat of Toronto dropping to 0-5 at home to start a playoff series looming. There were more boos when it became a reality, dropping the Raptors’ all-time record in opening games in the post-season to 1-9.
On the positive side of the ledger, DeRozan (22 points) showed signs that his woes against the Pacers were largely Paul George induced, even if his shot selection remains questionable. Against the heavier-legged combination of Luol Deng and Joe Johnson, DeRozan was able to slice, move and rise up far more comfortably. He was still too eager to force shots, but the way he turned Deng inside-out for a layup late in the fourth before hitting a corner three that Deng fouled him on bodes well, as the Raptors cut the Heat lead to 83-79 with 2:43 to play.
But the game itself was on a bender, right from the opening tip. Miami turned it over four times, started 2-of-9 from the floor and didn’t hit a three or free throw but trailed only 8-4 after 5:15.
Those early mistakes came back to haunt the Raptors as the game tightened up down the stretch, but nowhere near as much as Lowry’s continued struggles are shaping to haunt them in the series and beyond.
Lowry will keep looking for a way out of the hole he’s in, fumbling for the light switch in the dark.
“I know I’m not playing well at all,” he said. “We got out of that one series with me not playing well, shooting the ball well. But we’ve got to get out of this next series. I have to play better, shoot the ball better, score the ball better.”
That’s what put him back on the ACC floor in the wee hours of the morning. He was looking for his shot, trying to be himself again and make the Raptors the team they need to be.