The Lakers were late to the party and were trying to pry Kyle Lowry from Toronto after it appeared the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat weren’t going to meet the Raptors' ask for parting ways with their franchise icon.
Los Angeles was willing to part with their starting point guard Dennis Schroder – in part because they are concerned about being able to sign him in free agency this summer – along with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. That would have provided the required salaries to match Lowry’s $30.5-million.
But things got sticky after that. The Raptors wanted a future first-round draft pick and/or 20-year-old wing Talen Horton-Tucker.
The Lakers wouldn’t go the extra mile with Horton-Tucker in particular, which was a sticking point, and when deadline passed, Lowry was still a Raptor.
From the Lakers' point of view, that was a mistake. They would have gotten the best player in the trade and they would have improved their odds of a title while LeBron James is playing out the end of his prime. Everything else was over-thinking it.
Or at least Lowry seemed determined to prove it during the Raptors' surprising and even delightful 121-114 win over the Lakers on Sunday night.
Lowry was awesome as he finished with a season-high 37 points and 11 assists while shooting 12-of-20 from the floor and 8-of-13 from deep, setting a season-best for threes made.
That the Lakers weren’t willing to part with a relatively unproven Horton-Tucker for a future Hall-of-Famer with a championship ring had to be just the spark Lowry needed, right?
Well, not on the record at least:
“There was no extra motivation,” said Lowry who alternately seemed to be jousting with someone in the crowd at Staples Center, talking golf plans with Lakers assistant coach Jason Kidd and generally enjoying one his best performances in his 601st game as a Raptor. “I just wanted to help the team win tonight. No extra motivation for nothing.”
His energy had a more intrinsic source, he said. He was just having fun, determined to find pleasure in what has been a difficult season.
“That was a key,” Lowry said. “I said at halftime ‘no matter what happens in the rest of this game, let's have fun’, right. I think that's one thing that we can always kind of, you know, rally around each other is having fun. This game is a game of joy and fun and when you’re having fun, things like that happen. We just went out there and we literally just had fun tonight and, you know … and that was big."
He had help as Pascal Siakam put up 39 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to go with four assists, two steals and two blocks in one of the best games of his career, let alone his season.
“Those guys played great, those two guys,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “They were awesome, electrifying, I thought.”
Things aren’t as much fun for the Lakers right now as they are heading to the playoffs in a deep slump as they have lost three straight – two with both LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the lineup – and six of seven, and eight of their past 11.
Making it worse, James left the floor midway through the fourth having apparently re-aggravated the ankle that just kept him out of 20 games – the longest absence due to injury in his career.
The Lakers are tied with Portland and Dallas and have identical 36-28 records with eight games to play. The possibility of having to defend their title via the play-in tournament is suddenly very real.
The Raptors improved to 27-38 and picked up a game on Washington. They now have seven games left to make up two games on the Wizards, who hold down 10th place for the final position for the play-in tournament.
It’s a long shot, but on nights like this, it’s hard not to be intrigued.
The Raptors – even though they were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and without Fred VanVleet (hip), OG Anunoby (calf), Chris Boucher (knee) and Paul Watson (knee) – meant business from the start. Siakam popped off for 17 first quarter points to keep Toronto in touch after the Lakers jumped out to a 38-32 lead.
The Raptors then went off in the second quarter, pushing the pace, sending the ball around with a hiss and making the Lakers look clumsy and slow. When Lowry went coast-to-coast for a lay-up at the horn, plowing through James in the process, it was the end of a 23-6 run that sent Toronto into the half leading 72-59. Lowry had 19 at the half. The Lakers couldn’t pull any closer after the third quarter, leaving themselves needing to overcome a 99-84 hole at the start of the fourth.
For a moment it looked like they would do just that, with LeBron doing the heavy lifting. He sparked the Lakers on a 13-2 run that cut Toronto’s 21-point bulge late in the fourth quarter to 10 with 9:39 to go. But Lowry wasn’t having it. He hit two threes on either side of a 16-foot jumper to push the Raptors' lead back to 16 with 7:53 to play.
The Lakers kept pushing – a Kyle Kuzma three with just under a minute cut the lead to six – but Toronto got enough done at the free-throw line to keep the Lakers at bay.
The Lakers got 24 points off the bench from Kuzma and had five others in double figures, but James only had 19 points to off-set his five turnovers and Davis still looked clunky on his way to 12 points.
In contrast, Lowry was having a riot. He was playing to the crowd. He was playing to his teammates. He was putting on a show, the working title something along the lines of: “You could have had me, and I’m going to make you regret you didn’t.”
The missed opportunity to add Lowry – the kind of high-speed, two-way playmaker the lagging Lakers could use – is not the only connection between the last two teams to win the NBA title.
The Raptors may be days away from the likely expiration date on their season, but they can still offer some inspiration to the Lakers who certainly look to be in need of some.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Lakers won in the bubble in 2020 and then added Schroder – who is now out due to health and safety protocols — Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol in the off-season. They then added two-time all-star Andre Drummond during the season after he was bought out by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This was supposed to be the Lakers title to lose.
But as Los Angeles prepared to meet the reeling Raptors, they were the team in crisis – losers of five of their past six games, scrambling to avoid the play-in tournament, resigned to trying to become the first team to win a championship by surviving four best-of-seven series without homecourt advantage.
James and Davis are trying to work their way back to elite levels after missing 56 games combined due to injury while simultaneously trying to find chemistry with players they’ve never worked with before.
“It’s a big challenge, but we’re up to the test,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. “Certainly, none of us feel like [there] is enough time for LeBron and AD to get their rhythm and timing and conditioning back where it needs to be and to integrate guys … and get the chemistry where it needs to be, but we’re going to make the best of it and it’s going to be enough, but the challenge is significant.”
The Raptors can relate to the Lakers' challenge. Or at least the dwindling few who remain from the title team. Between the trade deadline acquisition of Gasol – now a Laker, though he didn’t play against his old team – and injuries and Kawhi Leonard’s load management strategy, the Raptors' starting five for the first round of the playoffs had played only 160 minutes together.
But we know how that went.
Is continuity overrated?
“I think it probably can be overrated, and I think it can be a factor," said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. "I think you're dealing at probably a bunch of different scenarios. When you're integrating a multi-year all-star and veteran player like Gasol, he's gonna kinda fit in a little faster than if you were waiting for some younger guys, maybe. I think that's part of it. I think [the media] was always trying to make a big deal out of going into the playoffs that we hadn't played much together, and I was more like the other side: I was encouraged that I thought this was still a two-month process and that we would grow. And we certainly did.”
Lowry was a big reason why. He took another step as a leader that season, judiciously working around his teammates to provide what the team needed at any given moment, his 11-point explosion to start the Raptors championship-clinching win in Game 6 of The Finals being the most obvious example.
It’s the kind of moxie and sense of the moment that any team trying to win a title could use, the Lakers being no exception.
Lowry is a one-man chemistry set, in addition to all his other talents.
On Sunday night, Lowry – intentionally or not – sent a forceful reminder to Los Angeles of what they could have had, and the message was sent in bold letters, all caps.