Toronto Raptors 2019-20 Player Review: Kyle Lowry just completed his masterpiece

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For a lot of guys, winning a championship will go down as their crowning achievement, the absolute apex of whatever arc their career travels. For Kyle Lowry, that seemed like it would be true, too… for about six months. Now, with the Raptors’ noble title defense in the books, it’s pretty clear winning a ring was just the amuse-bouche for Lowry. Securing a title poured the concrete of Lowry’s legacy. With his 2019-20 season, he left a bird-flipping handprint embedded within before it dries for good.

You can definitely point to other seasons since Lowry arrived in Toronto that were more statistically sparkling than the one that just saw him average 19-5-8 on 35ish percent from three. But as anyone who’s watched Lowry for more than a handful of national TV games a year since 2013 will tell you, to boil Lowry down to the numbers is to entirely miss the point. Yeah, sure, he’s one of the most beloved players when it comes to proprietary metrics since Shane Battier was at his peak, but even then, I’ve yet to come across any all-encompassing figures to describe the infectiousness of a devious smile, or the power of a supercomputer hoops brain, or the immensity of one’s balls. Concoct those formulas, and you might have a chance of capturing Lowry’s impact.

No season has ever pulled every quintessentially Lowry quality into one, maniacal, win-driving package like this one did. To start with, the raw production numbers above aren’t exactly weak sauce, especially against the backdrop of the previous two seasons, where Lowry eagerly accepted second billing because it helped the wings he shared the floor with to become their best selves. Because he’s Kyle Lowry, he just kind of decided at this season’s outset that he was a bucket-getter again, because it’s what the team needed him to be — you know, one of those easy things that 34-year-olds do all the time when the mood strikes. Cut to any point against the Celtics at which the Raptors’ season was on the line, and you’ll probably see a bulldozing Lowry drive ending in a basket, a big man careening violently off of his ass toward the free-throw line.

But because Lowry is all about balance — in both game management and post defense — he never let the team’s need for him to be the hammer detract from what became his chief purpose in 2019-20: shepherding Toronto’s long-developing shadow core into front and centre duty. Not only did Lowry excel at the wizened team vet gig, feeling out the pulses of each possession to determine whose time it was to eat, he embraced it like a hug from a relative in 2022. Few things brought Lowry joy this season like watching one of his Beloveds™ earn some shine.

After Game 3 against Boston, one of the best games Lowry’s ever played and which ended with the best pass a Raptor has ever thrown, his first order of business was to praise the receiver of that pass, OG Anunoby, with the beaming pride of a proud father on graduation day, no mention of his own role in getting him there, however crucial, to be heard. Lowry often ceded ball control duties to his back court partner in search of both a beefed up role and an ample free agency bag, orbiting off-ball and giving Fred VanVleet space to make mistakes and problem solve. VanVleet’s pull-up barrage against the Nets doesn’t happen in an environment wherein the team’s best player begrudges failure over encouraging it.

And then there’s Pascal Siakam, Toronto’s ascendant but not-quite-there next number one, who was damn excellent on his own for most of his first year in an elevated role, but who was just about unstoppable when tethered to Lowry in high leverage spots. Toronto’s second-best crunch time offense became what it did because Lowry’s gravity and screens and smarts lit the stage upon which Siakam carried out some of his most throat-rippy set pieces. When Siakam was unable to replicate those moments in the post-season, Lowry was the first to jump to his defense, plotting out the next steps for the Raptors’ young cornerstone to correct course the way he did himself a half decade prior.

An earlier version of Lowry may have had less time for youthful screw ups. It’s not that he hasn’t always been a kickass teammate or a fountain of basketball knowledge, but this season offered Lowry an unprecedented margin for error. Fair or not (definitely not), Raptors shortcomings in pre-Kawhi years would inevitably morph into more bullshit for the pile of weak arguments against Lowry’s standing as one of the defining players of the last decade. Winning a title, and capping that run with a huge-nutted 26 points in Game 6 of the Finals, put a muzzle on the noise for good. The Lowry we saw in 2019-20 played with the freedom of someone who knew he had nothing left to prove, understanding that a loss here or a playoff exit there couldn’t do a damn thing to tarnish his all-timer status.

The result was joy — the unencumbered kind that opens up avenues deemed too risky for a more burdened mind to saunter down. Fear of heights can’t exist when there’s nowhere to plummet when you step to the place Lowry occupied all season: the edge. At 33 and then 34, Lowry ratcheted up his minutes, hurled his body every which way, and gutted himself to a collection of his greatest games in a Raps jersey to date, along the way egging opponents on, more or less shouting “fucking try me,” knowing damn well he’d come out clean even if they did. Toronto wasn’t going to snap back from the loss of Kawhi Leonard only to improve its record without a little brazen defiance. Lowry conjured enough for everyone to share on his own.

Not even an exhibition game could offer reprieve from Lowry’s tour of delirium. He will forever be the guy who made the All-Star good and cool; the image of his double finger-guns after taking a charge from Leonard in crunch time would be as proper an inspiration as any for the statue that’s sure to be built outside Scotiabank Arena some day soon. It takes a special kind of lunatic to get superstars heated and media members excited during what’s more or less a working vacation for both. Lowry’s that kind of lunatic.

Add stakes to the equation, and he becomes the most frustrating video game boss you’ve ever tried to kill. It took all of seven post-season games for Lowry to top his previous playoff peak in last spring’s title clincher; the 31-6-8 on 13-of-23 he posted in the aforementioned third game against Boston was more singularly impressive and frankly necessary than his killer Game 6 against the Warriors. It then took him just three more games to raise the bar again. When the ink is dry on Lowry’s top-to-bottom wonderful career, the double-OT win over Boston in Game 6 will probably go down as the best night of basketball he ever put together. It’s the sort of game plenty of superstars wish to play but never will. For a more boring player, it might be the first line you pull in an argument about his Hall of Fame credentials — a form of discussion, by the way, that’s now having ifs and buts replaced by wills and whens for Lowry.

But of course Lowry’s arc is just as much defined by its high points as it is by all the lows that led to them. Flip to any chapter in his career and you’ll find a compelling passage, something that informs the rise that took so many years to complete, fleshing out the story of one of the most complex and interesting people to ever achieve NBA immortality. His record is unassailable now, a fact made more meaningful because it was never preordained. From back-up to so-so starter to malcontent to beloved stud, Lowry, the demon genius, has turned himself into your favourite player’s favourite player, your favourite coach’s dream pupil, and your favourite writer’s favourite guy to do blogs about.

If you still don’t get it, if you keep wondering why this barely six-foot shit disturber from the league’s northern outpost just keeps on winning, you’re a willful dolt, one whose spent eight years denying yourself all the joy Lowry used to flip off the league all season long en route to his newest crowning achievement.