Kyle Lowry isn’t done impacting meaningful NBA games

TORONTO — A leather-lunged fan in Miami was done with Kyle Lowryjust one season and three games into his Heat career, back in mid-October against the Raptors.

Remember: The Heat made the Eastern Conference finals last year. Lowry got injured during that run, compounding a complicated season that included an extended absence because of a personal issue and ended with Heat president Pat Riley saying Lowry had to improve his conditioning to get in “world-class shape.” Still, after a rough return to action in the playoffs, he ended up playing 75 minutes in the final two games against Bostonalmost helping the Heat pull off an unlikely comeback in the series.

Apparently those memories didn’t linger with this fan. After his first miss, the fan yelled, “Get him out.” When he was pulled for backup Gabe Vincent, there was an audible “Good. Leave him on the bench.” There was no forgiveness when those shots started falling, with Lowry putting up a 17-point, six-assist line in a Heat win.

It was one fan, so it doesn’t really matter. However, the heckling seemed to mesh with the general vibe around Lowry with the Heat. The Heat had been building to a big expenditure in 2021, with the ultimate goal of luring Giannis Antetokounmpo. If not him, then maybe one of the stars Clippers, Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, would hit the eject button and switch coasts. Of the three, only Leonard reached free agency, and he re-signed in Los Angeles. From that lens, ultimately using that space on Lowry, even if he was the most notable player to change teams that offseason, for three guaranteed years when he was going to turn 36 the following March had to be a letdown for Heat fans, especially those who grew up when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach. That’s understandable. Like the Heat, the Raptors had been managing their finances for a few years with the idea of ​​signing Antetokounmpo in mind. At least the Raptors eventually got Scottie Barnes as a consolation prize. The Heat got Lowry, who has been solid, but not transformative.

Yet, even if Lowry is past his prime, it doesn’t look like he is past impacting NBA games at a high level. In a 112-104 loss in Toronto, Lowry was the most effective player for an undermanned Heat team. Earlier this year, Lowry’s contract was being talked about as if it were an albatross. That opinion has aged poorly in less than a month. For the year, Lowry has a true shooting percentage of 59.6 and has 2.39 assists for every turnover. That’s very solid, full stop.

“(I’m) just figuring it out,” Lowry said Wednesday morning. Lowry finished with 19 points on 6-for-9 shooting. “One thing about it is it’s a marathon and not a sprint. Early in the year we were trying to figure out our team. Right now, unfortunately, we’ve got injuries so that forces everyone to step up a little bit more. I think we’re figuring some things out. Fourteen games in, if you’re concerned about your individual stats and your game right now, you shouldn’t be.”

Whether he gets to make an impact in big games for this Miami team this season is an open question. Like every competitive team in the Eastern Conference save for Milwaukee and Boston, the Heat are on a journey of self-discovery that they hope does not end in mediocrity. Lowry was a big part of the Heat’s three-game winning streak that ended Wednesday. He’s averaging 13.9 points, 6.3 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game in November, with his percentages creeping up across the board. He is in good enough shape to average more than 35 minutes per game.

He might not be a max player, but he remains more than a serviceable starter.

On Wednesday, Lowry was there to provide for the Heat, who were missing two of their most important starters, Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo. With Herro’s shooting missing, Lowry made a point to pull up for a 3 for the first bucket of the game. For the most part, what he did went beyond baskets. He got rookie Nikola Jovic, replacing Adebayo as a starter, some easy buckets early, including splitting two defenders with a pass on a pick-and-roll. He put pressure on Dalano Banton in the half court cause a botched handoff, leading to a Caleb Martin alley-oop. He scammed Banton on the other end, driving his arms through Banton’s outstretched arm 35 feet from the basket. The Raptors had already committed their fifth team foul of the quarter, producing two automatic free throws.

As Raptors coach Nick Nurse said before the game, some of that stuff might be annoying to witness if the franchise hadn’t seen it, and benefited from it, for such a long time.

“There’s nothing he could do to frustrate me,” Fred VanVleet said about his long-time mentor/teammate. “It’s annoying when he tricks the refs, but other than that, it’s just fun watching him do what he does.”

In the fourth quarter, he slung around some killer passes that were for naught as the Heat’s shooters went cold, hit a high-arching banker over Chris Boucher and, very predictably, baited Boucher into a foul on a drive. (That might be the referee manipulation that VanVleet was talking about.) He buried a 3 in the corner under duress. Ultimately, the Heat kicked the ball around a little too much to make a winner out of him.

“He was tough,” Nurse said. “He was trying to will ’em … to a win, that’s for sure.”

“I thought he was old three years ago,” VanVleet said with a smile. “To see him still kicking and making an impact and putting pressure on the defense, you could just see the greatness in him.”

Observations

OG Anunoby is a monster. He had a season-high 32 points, as well as 10 rebounds. I could pick out any number of plays to highlight his excellence, but it was really fair the space he was creating for his jumper, and the balance which he had, that most impressed me.

“I think he’s gone to more power and balance than skill,” Nurse said of Anunoby’s offensive skill set. “I think he was (previously) doing a lot of Euro-stepping and trying to avoid (contact).”

• The easy thing to do when your teammate gets doubled on a drive is to stay, unguarded, in the corner. If you aren’t a knockdown shooter, however, it might be wiser to cut along the baseline. Chris Boucher did the wise thing to save a rough possession in the final two minutes and was rewarded with a corner 3 on the next possession.

• VanVleet returned after a two-game absence with a non-COVID illness, finishing with 23 points and eight assists. He had a pass to Barnes out of a trap that was sublime.

“I think everyone I’ve talked to in the world (says) this is the worst cold (that) we’ve had, right?” said VanVleet, who added he still isn’t feeling entirely better. “Nobody’s really had a cold in two years. Everyone’s been wearing masks. So it was my turn. I hope that everybody can avoid it because it wasn’t fun.”

• Before the game, Nurse defended Barnes’ recent play, praising his defense and playmaking. He did say he wanted him to get into the paint more often. Barnes played 20 minutes in the first half, taking six shots, none of which came from the paint. His first paint shot came on a short hook shot early in the third quarter. He persevered through this one, working hard to finish with 19 points, six rebounds and six assists in 41 minutes. He might have lacked some strength at times, but he played a really nice game. For what it’s worth, Barnes said his ankle isn’t bothering him “at all,” despite it looking like he’s favoring it a few times per game.

• Little things, but I’m not sure why the Raptors would have VanVleet take the foul to give at the end of the first quarter. It wasn’t catastrophic, as it was just his second foul. With so much game left, though, I don’t think any players bound for crunchtime minutes should take that foul. He played with three fouls at the end of the second quarter and five at the end of the fourth

Gary Trent Jr. missed his second consecutive game with a sore hip. Otto Porter Jr. was also out with a dislocated toe he suffered Monday against Detroit. Nurse said before the game that Porter, like Trent, is considered day to day, but the forward will have more testing done. Banton started for a second straight game but exited in the third quarter with a sprained ankle. Nurse said the medical staff told him the injury “wasn’t too good.”

(Photo of Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry: John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

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