After two up-and-down games that had seen him shoot 30 percent from the floor and rack up as many personal fouls as assists, Kyle Lowry knew the Raptors needed more from him if they were going to take down the Warriors in Game 3 of the 2019 NBA Finals on Wednesday. So he made up his mind early: He wouldn’t just do more. He’d do more of everything.
“I had a little talk with him before the game, and his kind of comments to me was [that] he was going to let it rip tonight,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “Actually, one of the players had written that on the board: ‘Let it rip.’ And I said [to Lowry], ‘Did you write that?’ He said, ‘No, but that’s what I’m thinking.’”
Will the Warriors regret not playing Klay Thompson tonight?@JohnGonzalez and @YourManDevine recap Game 3 of the #NBAFinals live from Oakland. pic.twitter.com/Msrs1QLwBu— The Ringer (@ringer) June 6, 2019
Lowry turned that thought into action, playing with aggression and purpose from the opening tip to help lead Toronto to a decisive 123-109 win at Oracle Arena. With the win, the Raptors snatched back home-court advantage from the Warriors just one game after they’d lost it, taking a 2-1 edge in the best-of-seven series.
Toronto trailed for just 17 seconds of Game 3—from when Stephen Curry hit a 3-pointer that made it 5-4, until Pascal Siakam dropped in a hook that put the Raps back up 6-5 with 10:25 to go in the opening frame. The Raptors never looked back from there, playing fast, hard, smart, and with palpable tenacity—all traits the visitors can trace back to their bellwether point guard, who finished with 23 points on 8-for-16 shooting, nine assists, four rebounds, a steal, and a block in 43 dynamite minutes.
“For me, it was just coming off being aggressive,” Lowry said after the game. “And not so being passive, and trying to get everybody else involved—more so get myself going, and let everybody else feed off of that.”
“I think Kyle set a tone, played a great game for them and set a really good tone early,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Made some shots, controlled the game, and so he was—he was a huge factor for them. Played a fantastic game.”
After squandering some golden opportunities to take a 2-0 lead Sunday, the Raptors could ill afford to let another one pass. Lowry refused to allow his team to entertain the notion that it would be easy to dispatch a Golden State team without Kevin Durant, Kevon Looney, and Klay Thompson. (The Warriors listed Thompson as active for Game 3 after suffering a left hamstring strain in Game 2, but he never took off his warm-ups. Kerr said the team chose to keep the All-Star shooting guard on ice “to not risk a bigger injury that would keep him out of the rest of the series.”) Instead of Danny Green’s starting out guarding Curry, as he had in games 1 and 2, Lowry picked up the assignment; Fred VanVleet said he thought that “got [Lowry’s] juices going a little bit as a competitor.”
On offense, with the absence of Thompson, Lowry’s most frequent defender through two games, the Raptor looked to make his presence felt against Klay’s replacements. He went 5-for-9 from 3-point range and punished Shaun Livingston, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and any other Warrior defender who showed even a moment’s hesitation in stepping out to contest. He drove around and through Golden State’s bigger, longer defenders, burrowing his way into the paint before kicking out to open shooters, generating 21 points via direct assist.
“You saw [Lowry] aggressive in transition, but, again, usually when he’s going good, it means he’s hitting the paint, he’s attacking off the screen and roll, and really getting downhill,” Nurse said. “That’s usually a sign that he’s got a lot of his offensive game and confidence going.”
When Lowry’s at his best, he’s not waiting for that confidence to bloom or for inspiration to strike. He’s actively manufacturing it, getting his hands on the ball as quickly as possible—grabbing a rebound, stealing it from you, taking an outlet feed, accepting an inbounds pass, whatever, he’s not picky, just give him the friggin’ ball—and either looking for a hit-ahead pass that can set up a teammate with an advantage or sprinting into the frontcourt to create one himself. Nurse likes to preach pace, the value of playing faster, both in transition and in half-court sets. Lowry is his most zealous adherent, his most fervent believer in the gospel of go.
“All year, that’s why I love playing with the guy so much,” Danny Green told reporters after Game 3, in which he scored 18 points on 6-for-10 shooting from beyond the arc. “Because [Lowry is] a big reason why I get so many looks, him and Pascal. Him being the quarterback and Pascal being the wide receiver, and he’s throwing that ball ahead, and the defense collapses, it’s kick-out, open looks for me.”
When Lowry’s moved by the spirit, the whole team seems to move with him. The ball movement becomes infectious—Toronto logged 30 assists on 43 made field goals in Game 3, its fifth-best assist rate of the playoffs—and the Raptor offense suddenly begins to generate a deluge of deep buckets. With Lowry and Kawhi Leonard at the controls, Toronto picked apart a short-handed and nowhere-near-good-enough Warriors defense on Wednesday, drilling 17 of 38 3-pointers to earn a tie for the most 3s ever by a visiting team in the NBA Finals—a mark held by, you guessed it, the Warriors.
“He was great tonight, just controlling the pace and also finding his shots and looking to score,” Siakam said. “When he does both of those things and also the hustle plays on defense, I think that’s the whole package for Kyle. Having him on the squad is definitely something that we cherish. He’s our floor general.”
He’s also one of the league’s best. It wouldn’t be quite right to say that Lowry’s slept on; five straight All-Star berths and a $100 million contract suggest that plenty of people have recognized his value. But because Lowry rarely hangs eye-popping point or assist totals—because he doesn’t scorch nets like Steph and Dame, rock rims like Russ, or snatch ankles like Kyrie; because his game’s more ground-bound and subtle, more fine craft than fireworks—he might not pop to the front of most minds in conversations about the NBA’s top lead guards. He’s in that number, though, thanks in large part to his commitment to doing the kinds of things that don’t show up in highlight reels. The kinds of things that win games, and playoff series … and, maybe, after 13 seasons of scratching and clawing for every inch, an NBA championship.
“K-Lo’s a huge part of our pace, and that’s why he’s so ... that’s why he gets paid the big bucks, man,” Danny Green said. “He does the little things for us, even when he’s not scoring. Tonight he scored well, but the biggest thing that he brings for us is that edge. He’s a bulldog. He’s a pit bull down there, and he’s going take charges. He’s going to get rebounds. He’s going to box people out. He’s going to do the dirty work. He’s a blue-collar guy, and he’s going to give us pace. So as much as people like to get on him about not shooting well or not scoring, that’s not really his job.”
Lowry’s job, broadly defined, is to give the Raptors whatever they need whenever they need it most. In Game 3, what the Raptors needed most was a reminder that there was no way in hell they should lose a game to Stephen Curry and His Lovely Collection of Well-Meaning Friends—that the Raptors were better, full stop, and could prove it through the judicious application of ass-kicking force. So there was Lowry, driving into Livingston to draw a foul on the first possession and get some free points fast. There was Lowry, working to make Curry as uncomfortable as he could until he handed the defensive task off to VanVleet, who has excelled in that capacity.
There was Lowry, stepping in front of Quinn Cook to draw an offensive foul and wipe away a Steph 3 that would’ve cut Toronto’s lead to four points late in the second quarter. There was Lowry, hitting shot after shot that kept the Raptors’ lead in double figures—a 3 off a Serge Ibaka kickout and a driving layup in the final minute before halftime, another triple off a Marc Gasol feed with just more than eight minutes to go in the third, a big stepback 3 with 7:33 to go in regulation—or making the extra pass to an in-rhythm scorer for a basket that kept Golden State at arm’s length.
“Every time we needed a bucket, he gave us one. Every time they made a run, he had an answer,” VanVleet said. “Kyle was unbelievable.”
There was Lowry, diving into the front row to try to save a possession with a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter … and, unfortunately, getting shoved by a fan as he tried to make his way back to the court. (“There’s no place for that,” Lowry said after the game. “He had no reason to touch me. He had no reason to reach over two seats and then say some vulgar language to me. There’s no place for people like that in our league, and hopefully he never comes back to an NBA game.”) There was Lowry, tracking back in transition after a turnover and slowing up Draymond Green just enough to give Ibaka the chance to get back into the play and block Green’s would-be dunk.
In the biggest game in Raptors history and the biggest game of his career—until the next one, at least, because they just keep getting bigger and bigger when you get to June—there was Lowry, doing it all and then some. Squint a little, and you can see it as a validation of 13 years spent specializing in all those little things that aren’t so little—a benediction for a career come by honestly, and the hard way. And this time, Lowry won.
“I think, historically speaking, in the playoffs when he plays well, they usually go,” Curry said. “We got to do something about it.”
He’s not the best player on his team these days, or the best point guard in this series. But Kyle Lowry can still take control of a game with both hands, and Toronto wouldn’t be two wins away from the NBA championship without him.