TORONTO — One of the first things Masai Ujiri did when he took over as Raptors president and general manager last June was hop on a plane to Philadelphia for a heart-to-heart talk with point guard Kyle Lowry.
Ujiri gave it to him straight. He told Lowry, who was entering the final year of his contract, that he needed to clean up his act. Uriji said that when he discussed Lowry with NBA coaches, they invariably talked about his bad attitude and negative body language, how he was selfish and tough to coach.
The coaches rarely talked about his talent, Uriji said. Lowry was 27 years old, entering his prime. Was this how he wanted to be perceived in the league? He had a lot to prove before anyone gave him a lucrative new contract – and that included the Raptors. Ujiri needed to see more.
It was tough to hear, but Lowry listened. He took his new GM’s words to heart and resolved to be a better player and leader. He had his best season and became the heart and soul of a Raptors team that defied expectations and made the playoffs after being written off last fall.
And on Wednesday night, Lowry led the Raptors to their biggest win in 13 years. He equaled a career high with 36 points, including a game-winning three-pointer with 1:04 to play, as Toronto survived a late-game collapse and beat the Nets, 115-113, to take a 3-2 lead in their first-round playoff series.
Lowry, who has been nursing a bad right knee, had an extraordinary night. He shot 11-for-19 from the field (6 of 9 from three) and 8 of 10 from the foul line. He had six assists and, remarkably, only one turnover.
The elite players make the big plays in the NBA playoffs. We saw plenty of that in April, when it seemed every game was decided in the final seconds of regulation or in overtime.
But it seemed the Raptors would win going away in front of their raucous home fans at the Air Canada Centre.
Lowry hit a running three-point shot off the backboard at the first-half buzzer, giving Toronto a 62-44 lead at the break.
With four minutes left in the third quarter, Lowry buried a three to give the Raptors a 26-point lead, 83-57.
At that point, you figured an old Nets team might pack it in for the night and get ready for Friday’s sixth game back in Brooklyn. But this is the NBA playoffs, where no lead is safe.
The Nets stormed back against some indifferent Toronto defense, scoring 44 points in the fourth quarter and twice tying the game. Both times, Lowry responded. The second time came after Mirza Teletovic hit his fourth three of the evening to tie it at 106 with 1:30 left.
The Raptors isolated Lowry at the top of the key. He dribbled left and hit a fallway three-pointer from 25 feet to put the Raptors back ahead by three.
Then, after the Nets cut the deficit to one, Lowry hit a driving hook shot in the lane with 27 seconds left to make it 111-108.
Things got a little hairy in the stretch, but the Nets survived after a bizarre finish when Andray Blatche rebounded a missed Nets free throw but threw the ball into the backcourt for a violation. It was fortunate, because Jonas Valanciunas goal-tended Deron Williams’ 60-foot shot at the buzzer.
Anyway, it was another clutch finish for Lowry, who had hit a hook over Kevin Garnett late in Game Four to preserve the Raptors’ first road playoff win in 13 years and even the series.
“Sometimes the situation calls for it,” Lowry said. “Usually it’s (DeMar DeRozan, who scored 23). But tonight, the way they played him, it gave me an opportunity to get to the basket and get some shots off down the stretch.
“Our teammates count on us to make the right decisions and make the big plays,” Lowry added. “Tonight, they were guarding him tightly and I was fortunate to get it going a little bit.”
You could say the Raptors are fortunate to be in this situation – one win from the second playoff series win in their history. Ujiri has admitted he considered trading Lowry last summer.
He tried to trade him again in December, but the deal fell apart when Knicks owner Jim Dolan intervened.
That came after Ujiri made the deal that turned the season around. He traded Rudy Gay, his highest-paid player, and got four players – Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes – from Sacramento in return. Those four played all the minutes off the Toronto bench in Wednesday’s game.
Sometimes, the best trades are the ones you don’t make. It surely seems that way now, with the Raptors one win from a second-round series against the Miami Heat and Lowry winning the hearts of the Toronto fans.
He’s only 6-feet all, but he plays tough and he plays hurt. In a hockey community, they love it when the little man isn’t afraid to venture into the “dirty areas.”
The big question now is whether Lowry will stay. He has done what Ujiri asked, becoming a star and a team leader.
He says he’s become grounded as a man, dedicated to his wife, Ayahna, and two-year-old son, Karter.
But with every big game, the price continues to rise. Lowry will not lack for suitors in a league where dynamic point guards are more valued than ever. He’s in the last year of a four-year, $23.5 million contract that he signed when he was with Houston – who let him go to sign Jeremy Lin.
“He’s a hell of a player,” DeRozan said. “It’s the dog in him, it makes you want to bring your A game every single night, because he’s going to lay it out there. I’m going to give my best effort, because I know he’s going to do the same.”
Lowry doesn’t like talking about his contract situation. He says he likes it in Toronto. The feeling is mutual.
He’s quickly become one of the most popular players in franchise history. But fans worry. They can’t forget that Vince Carter and Chris Bosh bolted when free agency beckoned.
Canada isn’t the destination of choice for a lot of NBA players. But Lowry has found himself here. He has come of age in Toronto. He has become a leader and a star. Those things aren’t always transportable in free agency.
Under NBA rules, Lowry can make the most money by staying. It’s probably the best thing for him. But for now, it’s about the playoffs, maybe a date with LeBron James. Lowry is living in the moment. The big moment, especially.