-- TORONTO -- Dwane Casey wasn't in the mood to wax poetic about Kyle Lowry. The Toronto Raptors had surrendered 44 points to the Brooklyn Nets in the fourth quarter, and almost squandered a 26-point lead. Lowry had never scored more than the 36 points he compiled on 11-for-19 shooting in Wednesday's crucial 115-113 Game 5 victory. His head coach, though, was more concerned with the almost-disastrous finish.
"He's great," the Raptors coach said matter-of-factly. "He did a great job. He led us. But this game tonight, we've gotta learn from it. There's so many learning experiences from tonight's game: handling the lead, withstanding the prosperity. Embracing pressure, how about that one? We gotta do that from top to bottom. Kyle, 36 points is huge for us."
Lowry understated it, too, saying he had to step up because the Nets were guarding swingman DeMar DeRozan tightly. His teammates, however, didn't speak similarly. They're all aware of how essential Lowry has been, not just in the postseason but since September. That's when he showed up in Toronto in the best shape of his career, ready to take the Raptors where they hadn't been in years.
"Honestly, he's a hell of a player," DeRozan said with Lowry sitting next to him at the podium. "The dog in him makes you want to bring your A-game every single night because you know he's going to lay it out there."
Few players had more to prove than Lowry this season. Before it began, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri challenged him to play up to his potential and shed his reputation as a difficult player to coach. The team could either make a playoff push or be dismantled for the sake of lottery balls. When Ujiri traded forward Rudy Gay to Sacramento in December, it appeared it would be the latter.
In the days following the deal, another one reportedly fell apart. It would have sent Lowry to the New York Knicks. After at a recent practice, Casey said, "Some of the best trades that happen are the ones that don't happen." Lowry averaged 17.9 points, 7.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game, but did so out of the spotlight and didn't make the All-Star Game.
Despite an injured right knee, Lowry was effective in the series' first four games. He had just not yet been transformative. This was his signature performance, illustrative of the kind of impact he had in Toronto's best regular season in franchise history.
He started the game with a swished jumper and ended the first quarter with a pair of 3s. After he banked in a running 3-pointer from 30-plus feet at the halftime buzzer, he had 21 points on 7-for-10 shooting. The Raptors led by 18. When his full-court heave at the end of the third rimmed out, it felt somewhat surprising.
Toronto held a 22-point advantage heading into the fourth quarter, but Brooklyn charged back, cutting that deficit in half in about four minutes with Lowry on the bench.
Nerves filled the Air Canada Centre when the Nets' Joe Johnson tied it with a 3-pointer with 3:16 on the clock. After a timeout, Lowry drew a foul in the backcourt and hit two free throws. On the next possession, he took a charge.
It was tied 106-106 when Lowry hit the biggest of his six 3-pointers. He dribbled right to left, created space a couple of steps behind the line and released it with confidence. The 20,393 in attendance erupted as it went in, and the Raptors wouldn't relinquish that lead. It was close, though; they needed Lowry to take Brooklyn's Deron Williams off the dribble and hit a floater in traffic with 27 seconds left.
"When we needed a big shot, No. 7 came through," Raptors big man Chuck Hayes said. "Kyle was unbelievable. There's no more you can say. He's doing it at the right time on the biggest stage."
Lowry was effective in particular against Williams, making the three-time All-Star look helpless. He scored 17 points while guarded by Williams, shooting 5-for-7 from the floor. Williams has the superior pedigree and the maximum contract, but that's meaningless on the court. The 6-foot bowling ball of a point guard has a payday of his own coming up soon.
"He's an All-Star to me," Toronto swingman Terrence Ross said. "There's not too many point guards doing what he's doing. Especially, he's a little shorter than most guys. Man, I can't even explain what he's meant to this team."
Heading to Barclays Center with the chance to advance to the second round for the first time since 2001, the Raptors will need to avoid the kind of lapses that allowed the Nets to make a run in the fourth quarter. They will also need more timely brilliance from Lowry. The players have come to expect that.
"If we need an answer, we call Kyle," Hayes said. "Kyle will figure it out."