Raptors, Lowry pull out one more classic game before entering unknown

Pascal Siakam led all scorers with 27 points as the Raptors beat the Nuggets 135-111, with all eyes on Kyle Lowry as he played in what could potentially be his final game with Toronto.

It was, as Kyle Lowry said, weird.

Let it be recorded that if the best player in franchise history did play his final game in a Toronto Raptors uniform -- which feels inevitable in part because of Lowry’s expansive, reflective 25-minute post-game media availability -- that it was a much-needed win that ended a nine-game losing streak that was longer than any under Lowry’s watch.

Let it be recorded that Lowry was a career-high plus-42 in 33 minutes, even though he took just five shots.

And that it took place in Amalie Arena in front of a fraction of the fans that would have been at Scotiabank Arena, lifting the rooftop off of the place after he left the floor for one last time.

Oh, and also that Lowry interrupted his post-game media session to FaceTime with Drake.

And it let it be known that it was sad too.

Because it certainly feels like Lowry will be traded before the 3 p.m. ET trade deadline Thursday, and more than likely Norman Powell -- the second-longest serving Raptor and a self-made success story in his own right -- will be out the door as well.

Where Lowry will end up is still a mystery -- Miami and Philadelphia are the most likely destinations, but the reality that the pending free agent will be leaving seems inescapable at this point and when it happens it will mark the end of one of the most amazing rides an athlete can ever take with a franchise, city or country.

Lowry arrived in Toronto by trade in the summer of 2012; was within minutes of being traded in the Fall of 2013 to spark what was supposed to be a rebuild and never thought he’d be here past the summer of 2014 when he was a free agent. But then the Raptors made the playoffs for the first time in what became seven straight years, with Lowry as the one constant.

Lowry will leave as the most accomplished and decorated player the franchise has ever had, morphing from a fiery young man who had a chip on both shoulders and a habit of trusting no one to a sage and broadly respected NBA veteran with an Olympic gold medal and NBA championship to his name, plus a status as one of the league’s wise old heads and a slew of Raptors records that may never be broken.

But that’s all speculative. When Lowry left the floor after hitting his last basket -- a 27-foot above-the-break three from the left wing, naturally that put Toronto up 26 with 9:40 to play in their 135-111 blowout win over the Denver Nuggets, he knew that he was turning 35 when the clock struck midnight, but not where he’d be playing his next game, or if he’d just played his last for the Raptors.

“I’m going to be honest, usually I bulls--- y'all but it was kinda weird tonight not knowing what the next step would be,” said Lowry. “So, it's kinda weird, I'm gonna be honest with you, but it was great to get a win, it felt good to be out there and, of course, it would've been crazier if it was in Toronto, I would think, but it was different tonight, for sure. I mean, who knows what's going to happen? No one knows what's going to happen but it was definitely, for sure, different.”

There was a sadness around the whole thing, and not just because Lowry hasn’t played a game in the arena he rocked nightly for more than a year at this point and because if he’s traded the next game he plays in Toronto will be in an opposing team’s uniform.

It was sad too because, for one night in what has been largely a miserable season spoiled by relocations and injuries and illness and arguments, the Raptors looked like themselves. They moved the ball unhesitatingly. They defended as a swarm. They looked happy on the floor and they dominated one of the best teams in the Western Conference as they led early, middle and late against the Nuggets. They won easily and had fun doing it.

Lowry more than anyone else. He scored eight points, dished nine assists and was happy to be orchestrating, appreciating the success of others.

“I shot five shots and didn't even care at all because Freddie [VanVleet] played well, Norm played well, OG [Anunoby] played well, Pascal [Siakam] played well. I mean, our starting lineup was unbelievable,” said Lowry. “...like that stuff is cool to me. If I'm the one that's sacrificing for those guys for the team to be better that's what matters to me. To be a plus-42 that's a crazy number to me and I've seen that [former Raptor] Mark Jackson is a plus-46 [the franchise record] and I'm mad I didn't get four more. But we got a win and that was huge. That was a real-life huge thing for our team.”

It was a throwback to last season when Toronto played the regular season at a 60-win pace and proved that superstars don’t make the team. It was a joy. It was like seeing an old friend after too long apart. Everything looked familiar and every moment light.

The biggest question beforehand wasn’t where Lowry or Powell would play next but whether or not the Lowry and Powell would even play: It’s common practice for players on the cusp of being dealt to be held out of competition to avoid the possibility of an all-but completed deal to be scuttled due to a sprained ankle or worse.

But they were in their typical place in the starting lineup and played their regular dose of minutes as the Raptors rolled from the tip. It was like for a moment time was suspended and 2020-21 had never happened -- if you could get over the fact that the last game Lowry and Powell could theoretically ever play as Raptors would be 2,100 kilometres south of Toronto.

If this is Lowry’s last game as Raptor after nine seasons and 576 starts, and franchise records for assists, steals, three-pointers made, charges drawn and playoff games won, it was a signature effort in that the box score wasn’t all that remarkable. He was happy to share the stage, get everyone else what they needed and most importantly a win to improve the Raptors to 18-26 as they try to claw themselves back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Powell showed well too, if this ends up his last game in Toronto after six seasons of hard-earned progress. He’s been one of the most efficient scorers in basketball this season and it was no different Wednesday night as he finished with 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting while connecting on 3-of-4 from deep. He’s worked tirelessly to build those skills and it’s made him a hot commodity throughout the league, just as Lowry’s overall leadership and savvy are in demand by teams hoping he’ll take them over the top for a title.

Powell’s future is in doubt too, and while Lowry at this stage seems almost eager for his next adventure, the Raptors shooting guard seems less so.

“My roots are here. I’ve given everything to the franchise,” said Powell, who is shooting 43 per cent from three and averaging a career-best 19.5 points a game this season. “Obviously I want to stay here. I’m not out looking for other teams to go play for, and this, that and the other. I’m solely focused on this season, being with the team and hopefully being able to finish out the season with them.

“But I understand that it’s a business. We’ve seen in the past what happens, it doesn’t matter your feelings towards what you want, the organization and the people in charge that pay me to play are going to make decisions that they see fit for the direction for the franchise. You’ve gotta be able to take that on the chin and live with it. But obviously I’ve spent my whole career here -- the ups and downs, blood, sweat and tears, being a part of history, winning a championship. Obviously, I wouldn’t want to leave being traded away. So it is what it is but I’m just focused on myself and, like I said, what I can control.”

With each of them heading to free agency and it being unclear if the Raptors can or want to retain them due to cost in Powell’s case and Lowry’s desire to find a more certain path to a title as he turns 35, it might be the end.

If so, there was triumph as the Raptors set a franchise record Wednesday with 24 made threes on 50 attempts, but also an emptiness.

It’s part of the business and it’s a business that rolls on without heart sometimes, even if it depends on blood, sweat and tears. Put your heart into it too much and it's liable to get handed to you on a plate.

For now, we don’t know, but it’s sad the think about, there’s no escaping that.

The Raptors might change forever by 3 p.m. ET Thursday. The possibility -- even the near certainty -- of it is approaching like a ton of bricks.

For eight years it’s been nothing but good memories as a franchise that couldn’t get out of its own shadow for most of its first 20 seasons of existence rose to the NBA’s elite. The 2019 championship and the way a country came together over basketball, of all things, standing above all.

But memories can be sad too, even amidst greatness. And this was one of those times.

Appreciate every moment. A cliché has never rung more true.

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