Playoffs 2019 East Finals: Bucks (1) vs. Raptors (2)

Lowry's leadership lifts Raptors to first Finals appearance

Veteran guard was key for Toronto during series win over Milwaukee

TORONTO — With 3.9 seconds left, he knew.

Kawhi Leonard had grabbed the game-sealing rebound and was at the free throw line with the Toronto Raptors up by four. Leonard was the star that had carried this team though most of these playoffs, but your eyes gravitated to the man standing behind Leonard.

Kyle Lowry was giddy. As Leonard released his first free throw, he was pumping his fists. After the first shot, he had a huge grin as he dapped up Leonard, who remained characteristically stone-faced. As Leonard stepped back to the line for his second free throw, Lowry retreated to the backcourt with his hands on his head. It was a goofy smile, one he just couldn’t control.

Sitting at his locker after his Toronto Raptors advanced to the NBA Finals with a 100-94 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6, Lowry stumbled trying to explain what that moment felt like.

“That feeling is not,” he started. “You don’t know that feeling … You just don’t know what to say. It’s not a feeling you can describe.”

As he talked, the game ball was in his locker, sitting on top of a pile of gear. He had made sure to grab the final rebound after the buzzer sounded. As he ran off the floor to hug his kids, that ball was stuck to his hip. It was still there as he spoke with TNT’s Ernie Johnson at the trophy presentation.

“I might take it home,” he admitted.

Over the five regular seasons prior to this one, the Toronto Raptors had 19 more regular-season wins than any other team in the Eastern Conference. But in regard to postseason success, they had little to show for it.

There was Lowry getting blocked at the buzzer of Game 7 against Brooklyn in 2014. There was the embarrassing, first-round sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards the year after that. They reached the conference finals in 2016, but a 2-2 series wasn’t an “adverse situation” for LeBron James, whose Cleveland Cavaliers swept the Raptors out of the conference semis in both 2017 and 2018.

Lowry is the only guy on the current roster that’s been here for all the regular-season success and all the postseason frustration. And more often than not, he’s been the face of the latter.

There was another time when Lowry had a ball by his side as he addressed the media after a playoff game. It wasn’t the game ball, but rather the ball he had used in an impromptu, practice-court shooting session after a rough performance against the Miami Heat in 2016, one of the many Game 1 losses that the Raptors have suffered over the years.

Lowry has had a lot of ups and downs over the years, and really, his postseason struggles are probably overstated. In 67 playoff games with the Raptors, he has averaged 17.1 points (on an effective field goal percentage of 50.4 percent) and 6.3 assists. He’s a plus-80 in his Toronto playoff career, even though his team has been outscored by a total of 156 points over those six postseasons.

Whether or not the shots are going in, Lowry’s impact is felt. He makes big plays on both ends of the floor. And he’s made them in a lot of big moments in these 2019 playoffs.

It’s kind of incredible to think about how often this Raptors’ postseason was on the brink of another disappointing finish. In the conference semifinals, they trailed 2-1 and by four points early in the fourth quarter of Game 4 in Philadelphia. They needed four bounces to win Game 7. And in this series, they were just a possession or two from being down 0-3, a deficit that no team in NBA history has ever come back from.

On Saturday, the Raptors trailed by 15 points with a little more than two minutes left in the third quarter, in danger of losing their best opportunity to close out this series. Some life had been breathed back into the Bucks, who would have had a Game 7 back in Milwaukee. Prior to Saturday, they were 57-5 in games they led by at least 15 points. The Raptors made some abbreviated runs, but just couldn’t get over the hump.

But then it happened. A 26-3 run that turned that 15-point deficit into an eight-point lead, one that the Raptors would never lose (though they came close). Leonard got it started with eight points and an assist to close the third quarter, but the Raptors kept it going with their star on the bench for the first two and a half minutes of the fourth.

Lowry didn’t score any of the 26 points, but he had four assists on the run, and the last was one every Raptor fan will remember forever. After Leonard missed a three, Fred VanVleet picked up Middleton in transition. But when Middleton tried to go behind his back, Lowry pounced from off of George Hill in the strong-side corner.

He took the ball from Middleton and raced down the floor with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe on his tail. He stopped just inside the free throw line, waited for the two Bucks to pass by and dropped an underhand pass to a trailing Leonard. As Leonard rose for a majestic left-handed dunk, Lowry gave Antetokounmpo a little nudge to help prevent a block.

“I know just to keep running with Kyle,” Leonard said. “If he doesn’t have nothing easy, he’s going to make the right play.”

It was the highlight of the night, a play only topped on this postseason run by Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater. And it capped what was a remarkable comeback from a tough, resilient team.

The Raptors wouldn’t be here without Leonard, the star that has lifted them. They also wouldn’t be here without Lowry, the tough point guard who has played through an injured left thumb (that seems bound for surgery after The Finals) and spent most of the series guarding a guy – Khris Middleton – seven inches taller than him.

“His natural instincts are to be a leader out there, and he shows it,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “He does it with his IQ and his great knowledge of the game. He shows it with tremendous toughness as well. That’s his other natural characteristic. He’s blocking out guys twice his size. He’s taking charges every game. He’s just going to fight to win. He’s a hell of a competitor, and that rubs off on guys.”

After five years of playoff frustration, Kyle Lowry finally broke through. And though this postseason isn’t over, an Eastern Conference championship was clearly a time for celebration.

“I’m going to savor the moment,” Lowry said, “but I’m not satisfied. Our goal is to win the NBA championship.”

The Finals start Thursday.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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