By Vivek Jacob
Kyle Lowry lay flat on his back, clutching his face in disappointment as his backcourt mate DeMar DeRozan tried to console him. Lowry knew he had just missed the biggest shot of his career with an opportunity to win the series on the last possession of a Game 7 against the Brooklyn Nets in 2014.
Paul Pierce, now walking away from the game after the Los Angeles Clippers’ defeat at the hands of the Utah Jazz, swatted away his attempt at the rim for 104-103 win.
The “what ifs” of that moment were plenty with Lowry heading into free agency. He met with the Houston Rockets where he could have potentially patched up a broken relationship with Kevin McHale. While uncertain of the fit, his mindset was clear.
“I think the right situation is somewhere I’m winning and being happy, and honestly I want to play for a championship,” Lowry told Basketball Insiders back in June of 2014. “I’m happy with making the playoffs and doing that, but the end game for all players should be a championship and that’s what I want to play for. I want to play for a championship.”
Masai Ujiri offered him the guarantee of being a franchise player and a fan base that would be indebted to a star player that chose to remain in Toronto. The Philadelphia native eventually stayed, but there has been no championship since. This is, of course, a world a with LeBron James and Steph Curry, so those dreams are hard to fulfill.
Adding insult to injury has been Lowry’s questionable stage presence. His body crumbled towards the end of the 2014-15 season where the Raptors fell victim to a sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards. Last year, an elbow issue had his shooting stroke in a funk through the first nine games, averaging just 13.6 points on 30.8 percent shooting, and a frigid 15.8 percent from beyond the arc.
In the Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lowry was in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde mode. He averaged 10.3 points on 32.5 percent shooting over three road games, including just two 3-point makes from 19 attempts. At home, he averaged 30 points over three games on 58.2 percent shooting including 14-of-27 from downtown.
Which brings us to this season. Lowry continued his ascension in the regular season, averaging career-highs as a starter in points (22.4), field-goal percentage (.464), three-point makes per game (3.2), and three-point percentage (.412). Unfortunately, Lowry injured his right wrist before the All-Star break, forcing him to miss all but four games in the unofficial second-half of the season.
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The Raptors posted a 14-7 record in his absence, with the additions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker vaulting the team to the fourth-best defensive rating (102.3) since the break. Toronto went 4-0 after Lowry’s return to finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference after the break, setting the stage for a strong postseason run.
Swiftly dispelling any exaggerated excitement in the city, playoff Lowry returned. He scored just four points in Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks, playing arguably the worst game of his entire career. Toronto found a way to win the series after adjusting to the Bucks’ length with Norman Powell, but Lowry finished with less than flattering numbers of 14.3 points, 5.2 assists, 42.6 percent shooting from the field, and 28.1 percent shooting from deep.
If there was ever a series that could put all those playoff woes to rest, it would be this one against Cleveland.
If the Lowry of the regular season can show up in every game, it would not only reinvigorate his playoff stature, but give Toronto a legitimate shot at winning the series against a Cavaliers squad that has failed to show any level of resistance on the defensive end. Many look at this LeBron James squad as the most susceptible to an upset within the Conference since the Boston days of Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett, and the Raptors are looked upon as a strong enough team to test that theory.
If Lowry fails to perform and Toronto falls short, he will have to consider his options once again. He will most likely exercise his early-termination option and become a free agent, but a failure to be the guy in Toronto may leave him looking for options where he doesn’t have to be the guy. It was a good sell on Masai Ujiri’s part in 2014, but as much as the truth hurts, it may be a reality Lowry has to face.
Should Lowry choose a new path, it could bring about a complete U-turn for the franchise, with free-agents-to-be Ibaka, Tucker, and Patrick Patterson unlikely to re-sign. Who knows? All those departures may even leave Mr. “I am Toronto”, a.k.a. DeMar DeRozan, requesting a new home.
Test the Cavaliers, though, and push them throughout the course of a six or seven game series, and there should be enough belief on both the management and players’ side that they have a hand worth going all-in for.