TORONTO — Everyone needs a Luis Scola in their life. Someone who knows you, has seen you at your best and your worst, and believes your best is the true representation of who you are. Someone who never loses faith about where you’re headed.
A day removed from watching their all-star point guard play like the basketball was a chainsaw to be juggled while on a stepladder, the big Argentinean forward was doing what Scola does best.
Scola was preaching calm, trying to ease the burden on Lowry, his teammate and friend. Scola was preaching “things aren’t so bad,” followed up with a generous dollop of “things are going to be okay.”
Scola is 36 and only has so many NBA seasons left in him. But when the moment comes for him to hang it up after a Hall of Fame career in which he’s been a superstar internationally, role player in the NBA and everything else in between, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should seize his passport and hire him as a one-man answer to climate change.
Scola turns down the heat.
It’s been a stressful playoff run and the Raptors are only eight games in with Game 2 of their second-round series against the Miami Heat slated for Thursday night. The Raptors had a wonderful regular season, but have been struggling with the expectations they created for themselves and Raptors Nation, who see their 56 wins and No. 2 seed and figure the Eastern Conference Finals are next.
A worthy goal, but as their first eight playoff games have proven, not one that comes easily.
"We’re put in this kind of situation where every time we’re not up double digits we’re like, ‘Oh my God, what is happening?’ said Scola, who has lost his starting position but maintains his role as the most thoughtful Raptor in the room. "Every time they make a run it’s ‘Oh my God, what is happening.’ Every time we lose a game it’s like, ‘Oh my God.’"
Right now the heat is on Scola’s friend and teammate, Lowry, who is a two-time all-star on the strength of his ability to lift the Raptors to unpredicted heights. Lowry’s not an NBA MVP candidate — which typically is awarded to the game’s best player — but it’s hard to imagine a player outside LeBron James more instrumental to his team’s success. And for the moment, Lowry is flailing.
Just a minute before Scola’s appeal for calm, Lowry was in the interview room at the BioSteel Centre opening up a vein. No one is caught in the spider’s web of unmet expectations more than Lowry and almost asking for help, if not some understanding, as he tries to explain why or how his game has deserted him.
His message? He doesn’t know what the hell’s gone wrong either.
It was a side of the often-brusque point guard rarely seen. All athletes have slumps, but shooting 8-of-50 from the three-point line isn’t a slump; it’s as if a once-reliable skill has been vaporized. Shooting percentages often tick down in the post-season, but according to ESPN Stats & Info, no one in the last 50 years has shot worse than the 30.6 per cent from the floor Lowry is at through eight post-season games.
"It’s crazy. It’s like I said, it’s mind boggling to me," Lowry said on Wednesday as he tried to put into context his performance in Game 1 against the Heat, even as his friend Scola was trying to calm things down.
On the heels of the 31 per cent he shot against the Indiana Pacers, it was assumed that Lowry would bounce back against the Heat if only because it seemed impossible that such a good player could struggle this long.
Instead, Lowry contributed just seven points on 3-of-13 shooting, a line bolstered by his desperate game-tying heave at the end of regulation. For the first time in the playoffs, Lowry looked like his slump was breaking his mind as he hesitated every time he had the ball, unsure of what the right play might be.
Professional athletes are compelling precisely because they rise above the doubt and indecision most mortals swim in every day. But Lowry is drowning at the moment.
"Dude, how are you not making these shots?" he quoted himself as saying to himself. "For me, I go into the games like I’m about to go and we are going to win this this game. Then I miss a shot and it’s ‘Ok.’ Then I miss another shot and that’s when it’s like, ‘All right, I got to try and do something different.’"
"Even [in Game 1] my first shot was a 15-footer and I missed it. Maybe my first shot needs to be a free throw or a layup. I have to figure out ways to just build the confidence. Get a layup; just see the ball go through the hole at some point. Just a fluke shot or a free throw, something to get it going."
Does it play with his head?
"For sure. For sure. Right now, at this point, for sure. Last game it would and the game before, but now going into tomorrow it’s not. I just have to go out and play. If I miss it … I mean, honestly, I got texts from my teammates and I’ve talked to them. They have my back. I just have to go out and play."
Enter Scola. He’s known Lowry since he was a kid. They were teammates on some very promising Houston Rockets teams. He saw a fiery, tempestuous Lowry break through as an NBA starter in 2010-11 and then lose that job to Goran Dragic (now of the Heat) the following year, a tumult that precipitated Lowry requesting a trade and being dealt to the Raptors in the summer of 2012.
Scola has seen everything, and he’s seen Lowry go through worse.
"That was probably his lowest point, and I was there. I have seen him go through some ups and downs, he had ups and downs a lot of times," said Scola. "I don’t feel like this is a unique situation. This is something that happens all the time, with a lot of players, with everybody. "
"But it’s happening to him and I feel bad. I don’t want it, but I know it’s going to change. I have complete confidence."
And in this Scola is likely correct. Lowry swears he’s healthy and his struggles aren’t due to his elbow problem from earlier this year. If that’s the case then eventually someone who shot 39 per cent from three over the course of a full season won’t shoot 16 per cent from deep forever.
But he’s got to start somewhere. And while Scola was preaching patience and support, teammate DeMarre Carroll was arguing for urgency and self-reliance as the Raptors try to avoid going down 0-2 in the series.
"Sometimes you just have to look yourself in the mirror," said Carroll. "You have to man-up. You have to be like, ‘I’m the Kyle Lowry that played the 82 games, all-star.’ You can say a lot to encourage him, but I feel like Kyle as the individual and a competitor, who he is, he has to look in the mirror and say ‘I’m Kyle Lowry.’ If he can do that he can help us tremendously."
Over to Scola: "I’m optimistic. That’s all I can say. I’m not in [Lowry’s] brain, but I think that’s the way it is, that’s the way the game goes."
The wise old man suggested that Lowry’s problems aren’t that much different than those the Raptors are experiencing as a group; that after a record regular season following years of post-season failure — recent and distant — they are lacking some perspective about exactly what they’re up against.
"No one ever said we have to win all the games. No one ever said we have to win by 20. There is only one thing you have to do and that’s win four games before they do and win them all by one point. Everything else is extra."
At times like these a voice like Scola’s is a beacon of reason and calm, and as soon as Lowry starts knocking down some shots, people might actually listen.