Lowry starts and finishes a winner as Raptors down Cavaliers

Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry (7) drives past Cleveland Cavaliers' Darius Garland (10) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Cleveland. Toronto won 115-109. (Tony Dejak/AP)

CLEVELAND – Before his Toronto Raptors took on the Cleveland Cavaliers Thursday, Kyle Lowry was exchanging greetings with staff at the newly-renovated Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse – what was new, what was different, all of that.

Gesturing at an undecorated wall outside the visiting locker room, Lowry asked what the plans were.

“They should put your picture up there,” the arena staffer joked.

Without missing a beat Lowry said: “Why? All we ever did is lose here.”

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Not this time. Lowry was the big winner before the ball ever went up when it was announced he had been selected as a reserve for the Eastern Conference all-star team, marking his sixth straight all-star appearance and sixth overall — the most appearances by a Raptor.

It’s a remarkable achievement for a player who didn’t make it to his first all-star game until his ninth season, had been traded twice and struggled to establish himself as a starter before he arrived in Toronto in the summer of 2012.

Did he think this was in the cards back then?

“I don’t know. Probably not,” he said. ”I always thought I was going to be good but it was just opportunity and once I got the opportunity I would take advantage of it and I did and it’s been a great run so far and I’m going to try and keep it going.”

It puts the Raptors star in good company – the likes of Joe Dumars, Nate Archibald and Adrian Dantley made it to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame with six all-star nods as part of their resume. A lot of great players – Sidney Moncrief, Chris Mullin, Reggie Miller and Pete Maravich among them – made it in as five-time all-stars. Lowry’s got plans to play for years, so he’s got time to flesh out an application, but this could help start the conversation.

The only downer on the evening was that in the final moments of the Raptors’ 115-109 win, Lowry says he was shoved by a fan in the first row after he dove into the crowd to save a loose ball, a play that led to a critical Serge Ibaka three with 2:06 left to play.

It echoed a similar play in Game 3 of the NBA Finals against Golden State, when Lowry was shoved by a fan who also directed obscene language at the Raptors guard. The fan turned out to be a member of the Warriors ownership group. The culprit, Mark Stevens, was fined $500,000 and barred from the NBA for a year.

On the surface this incident doesn’t seem quite as emphatic, although the fan does appear to give Lowry a two-handed push as he gets up from his lap and returns to the play. Lowry stops and looks back but almost instantly gets back to the action.

“You’re diving for a loose ball and a fan’s pushing you, it’s unbelievable man,” said Lowry afterwards. “Our fans, our NBA fans, shouldn’t be represented by people like him. It’s the second time it’s happened to me and it’s kind of getting crazy because next time it happens I don’t know if I’ll be able to control myself and hopefully I will … I couldn’t really react because I was in mid-play, but it will come up. Fans like that shouldn’t be in our buildings, in our arenas.”

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On a brighter note, the play itself was one of a handful that Lowry made down the stretch of what turned out to be a surprisingly tight game that perfectly encapsulated his all-star status. Lowry’s box score line was impressive as he finished with 23 points, five rebounds, five assists and four steals, but he changed the game with plays that don’t translate directly into numbers.

What was a close game throughout appeared to crack open late in the third quarter, when Lowry helped engineer an 11-0 run that put Toronto up 88-75. But with Lowry on the bench to start the fourth, the Cavs came back, cutting the lead to four. Lowry stepped in to draw a charge and appeared to knock the ball away as the Cavs were turning on a fastbreak off a Raptors miss. The loose ball ended up in Pascal Siakam’s hands and the Raptors were up 10 again. Lowry didn’t get credit for anything – Siakam was credited with a steal – but it was a five-point swing in an instant.

The Cavs kept coming and cut the Raptors’ lead to one on a Larry Nance Jr., alley-oop with just over two minutes to play. This time, Lowry chased down a missed Siakam jumper to half court, leaped into the first row — which is when the fan pushed him — to save the ball into the hands of Fred VanVleet, who moved it to Ibaka for a wide-open three. Then it was Lowry’s dribble penetration with a minute left that created an open three for Norman Powell who drained it, putting the Raptors up six and effectively icing the game.

“He’s a fantastic player. He’s a winner. He does a lot of things out there,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “This is about the third win in a row that he’s made a game-influencing play in the last minute and a half or minute and 20 seconds. The steal in New York, the steal in San Antonio, the hustle down the loose ball tonight that ends up in three points in the corner. The numbers are great. He provides a lot of win percentage to the team. He makes a lot of winning plays.”

It’s just a bonus that they came in Cleveland, the place too many Raptors seasons have come to die. Cleveland has largely collapsed into a black hole left by the departure of LeBron James before the 2018-19 season. Related: The Raptors made their first NBA Finals and won the title after James left his hometown for the bright lights of Los Angeles.

The Raptors’ nightmares on the shores of Lake Erie are largely behind them.

The win extended their winning streak to a season-high nine games and improved their record to 34-14, with a chance to extend the streak on the road against the Detroit Pistons Friday night.

The Cavaliers? They fell to 13-36 just two years after a run of four straight Finals appearances.

Ibaka led the Raptors with 26 points on 14 shots. VanVleet had eight points, seven rebounds and 12 assists.

The Raptors had a handy excuse had things gone sideways.

While Patrick McCaw returned to the lineup wearing a mask to protect a broken nose, they were missing centre Marc Gasol, who left Tuesday’s game against Atlanta with tightness in the same hamstring that kept him out for 12 games from Dec. 18 to Jan. 15. Gasol didn’t travel with the team, so the soonest he could return would be Sunday’s game against Chicago back in Toronto, but the Raptors will be cautious.

“It’s very slight. Not nearly as bad as last time,” said Nurse before the game. “[But] he’s going to have to get that thing taken care of. That’s for sure.”

Gasol had been playing some the best basketball of his season, and it’s probably not a coincidence that Toronto was 8-0 since he returned to the lineup, though a soft schedule and his return coinciding with Powell getting healthy certainly helped.

But Gasol was averaging 11.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists since coming back from his first hamstring injury, while shooting 60.3 per cent from the floor and 52.8 from three – all improvements over his numbers before getting hurt, with the exception of his rebounding totals.

Ibaka drew in as a starter while Montreal’s Chris Boucher got Ibaka’s minutes off the bench. Ibaka – who is heading into free agency and can only be eager to polish his numbers heading into an important summer – was locked in offensively all night.

But no one was likely hungrier for some extra playing time than Boucher, whose role has been significant when the Raptors are battling injuries and almost non-existent when healthy. In the first seven games after Gasol returned to the lineup, Boucher played seven minutes total. In the 12 games Gasol was out, he averaged 18 minutes. He had nine points in 13 minutes after Gasol left Tuesday’s game.

“For Chris, he’s gotta play with great energy. We’re trying to cut down on inconsistent play, just reads and coverages and communication,” said Nurse. “That’s just young, inexperienced stuff. We want to keep growing him in those areas, because he does get on the offensive glass, he blocks shots. He provides a lot of fearlessness in his play. He can even stick the 3-ball here and there. Do those things and he oughta be alright out there.”

He didn’t need any reminders in the first half against the Cavaliers. The Raptors were mostly content to string the bottom-feeding Cavs along early on, trailing 31-26 after the first quarter, but Boucher helped spark things for the bench unit after he checked in late in the first frame and chipped in eight quick points in an eight-minute stint. Boucher finished with a hyper-efficient 10 points on five shots in 15 minutes. The Raptors led 56-52 at half even while shooting 4-of-14 from three. It helped that Ibaka was rolling from the beginning, scoring 13 first-half points on seven shots.

Ultimately, the Raptors got out of Cleveland with a win, which they don’t take for granted given their history here. Lowry, who was a winner before he even stepped on the floor this time around, made sure that he left that way too.

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