Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry showed up at Fiserv Forum for the first game of the Eastern Conference finals wearing a big blue oven mitt on his left hand to help with circulation in his injured thumb, but you would have never known there was anything wrong with him. After a difficult, seven-game series against the super-sized Philadelphia 76ers, Lowry made the game look easy against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday.
The possession that best exemplified this came in the third quarter. After a stop, Lowry pushed the pace, used a reverse pivot to beat Eric Bledsoe on the baseline, kept his dribble alive Steve Nash-style when Brook Lopez helped, then gave the ball up to Marc Gasol and relocated to the perimeter for a deep catch-and-shoot 3, which he drilled with no hesitation:
This is peak Lowry: aggressive, clever and all over the place. He was in the flow, free and in rhythm, a step ahead of the defense, ready to pounce on any opportunity that presented itself. Thanks largely to his energy, the Raptors’ offense looked like it did for the vast majority of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic and only small portions of the Sixers series. Lowry was not perfect — he turned down a clean look on a late possession that ended with a Danny Green turnover that led to a Lopez dunk — but, for much of the night, it felt like he was.
In 40 minutes, Lowry played his most complete and most efficient game of the playoffs, scoring 30 points on 10-for-15 shooting, with eight rebounds, two assists and a steal. He made a career-playoff-high seven 3s on nine attempts and was the only Raptor to make a field goal in the fourth quarter. His teammates went a combined 0-for-15.
It was the type of effort Toronto needed against a team that is focused on making Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam uncomfortable. He did the magical Lowry stuff you’re used to — a spectacular save as the ball was falling out of bounds and a charge taken against Khris Middleton to thwart a fast break come to mind — and he put constant pressure on the Bucks’ defense. If the Raptors hadn’t bricked all those shots in the fourth quarter, given up 15 offensive rebounds and allowed Milwaukee to get way with too many points in transition, it would have been enough to take a 1-0 lead in the series.
“It’s been a while since he’s had one of those nights where, every time he pulled up, you thought he was going to make it,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse told reporters after the 108-100 loss. “Every time he let it go tonight, you were, like, ‘That’s going in.’ And that was good to see. ‘Cause we’ve seen those a lot in the regular season and all that stuff.”
Even in the regular season, Lowry was rarely quite as productive as this. The acquisitions of Leonard and Gasol and the emergence of Siakam have tilted Lowry’s role away from scoring, and he only reached the 30-point mark once this year. That Lowry was able to establish himself so forcefully is encouraging, as this did not necessarily look like an advantageous matchup on paper. He shot poorly in each of the three regular-season games he played against Milwaukee, going scoreless in 34 minutes in a December meeting. Bledsoe is a strong, quick and pesky defender, as is George Hill, and Hill gave Lowry trouble in the playoffs three years ago.
“They got a whole bunch of guys, kind of athletic guards, and they run a bunch of different guys at him,” Nurse said. “They’re doing a decent job of eliminating his touches, so I thought it was good that he could get the ball as much as he did. He stepped into all of [his shots].”
Given that the Raptors went on a 16-0 run in the first quarter and led by as many as 13 points, and given that Lowry so thoroughly outplayed Bledsoe, and given that the Bucks went 11-for-44 from 3-point range, the conventional wisdom is that they couldn’t afford to let the game slip away. Indeed, as Milwaukee made its comeback and eventually took the lead, it was impossible not to think that they wasted an inspired effort. “It sucks when you lose like that,” Lowry told reporters, “but we had a chance and we gotta learn from it.” The playoffs are unforgiving, and all Toronto can do is try to be better on Friday.
If there is anything that Lowry and the Raptors can learn, it is that when they are disciplined defensively, decisive offensively and keep the Bucks from getting in the open court, they can look like the better team. When they slip in any of those areas, though, they can lose control quickly. If they even up the series before heading home, the idea that they blew it in the opener will seem silly. If they do not, it will be a challenge to avoid dwelling on what could have been. As much as this Lowry-led game represented what Toronto can be at its best, it also represented something less hopeful: a razor-thin margin for error.