TORONTO — In the hours after the Toronto Raptors’ blowout Game 2 loss, there’s a good chance Kyle Lowry heard from Jay Wright.
Lowry and his former coach at Villanova have kept in close contact over the years, particularly in the playoffs. And particularly after a bad game.
“We text short thoughts,” said Wright. “And we tend to talk a little more if I think he’s struggling a little bit.”
The Raptors were blown out 125-103 in Milwaukee on Friday, and trail the Bucks 2-0 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final heading into what’s virtually a must-win Game 3 on Sunday.
Lowry and Kawhi Leonard carried Toronto through the first two games. Lowry poured in a playoff career-high seven three-pointers in an outstanding 30-point performance in Game 1, despite playing with a sprained thumb. At one point he did a Black Ops dive to bat in a ball headed out of bounds.
The post-game mood was that the Raptors wasted Lowry’s near-perfect night.
The Raptors are going to need another big game from their 33-year-old guard if they’re to stop this series from going over a steep cliff at a swift pace.
Late in the fourth quarter Friday, when Lowry was shooting free throws, a section of fans at Fiserv Forum chanted “Play-off Low-ry!” Lowry has been the target of some scathing criticism in the post-season. Wright said it’s unfair.
The 57-year-old coach uses Lowry as an example for his Wildcats players. The tougher the games, the better the lessons.
“For instance that Game 7, he wasn’t making shots, he shot 1-for-7 from three,” Wright said of Toronto’s thrilling second-round win over Philadelphia. “We sent a text to all of our players that Kyle was 1-for-7 from three, 4-for-13 (from the field), yet he kept pumping up his teammates, he gets two huge steals at the end of the game to win the game.
“Missing shots didn’t affect his psyche where he wasn’t aggressive and making those other plays. And his team wins. It’s a great example for our young guys.”
Lowry had 15 points on 4-for-13 shooting — 2-for-9 from deep — in Sunday’s rout. Lowry, Leonard and Norm Powell were the only double-digit scorers. The point guard, who’s been wearing a compression glove that resembles an oven mitt since injuring his thumb in Game 7 of the Philly series, appeared in obvious pain at times.
Not making shots can weigh on the psyche, Wright said, particularly when the one struggling is a high-profile player like Lowry.
“Because you know everyone is counting on you,” said Wright, who’s heading into his 18th season at Villanova. “It might affect how hard you play at the defensive end or whether you stay aggressive, or whether you stay communicating with your teammates.
“Just a simple thing like your shot’s not going in and you go quiet. You just don’t talk. When he’s missing shots, it doesn’t affect anything else he does on the court. He still defends, he still rebounds, he still communicates, he still passes, he still plays aggressively. It seems like such a simple thing, but the higher the stakes, the more the attention is on you, the harder it is to do.”
Wright is proud of the player and man Lowry has become, saying he struggled in his freshman year at Villanova, particularly with dealing with authority. So when he has young players struggling, he tells them: “Look at Kyle Lowry. He’s the captain of the team, a leader, he’s donated a significant amount of money back to the university, he’s a great father, husband. But when he was a freshman he struggled with a lot of the things.”
Lowry still trains at Villanova in the off-season. It’s an ideal situation for Wright who has a living, breathing example of where hard work will get you in his gym every morning.
“Kyle is in our gym at 5:30 in the morning working out. Our team comes on the court at 7,” Wright said. “They come on the court and there’s an NBA all-star drenched in sweat, at 6:45 it’s the greatest example you can have. I don’t have to say a word. They walk on the court and he’s soaking wet at the end of his workout.”
Lowry and Leonard are desperately in need of help against the Bucks. The team’s supporting cast has all but disappeared. An ugly exit at the hands of the Bucks would be a major disappointment to a team rebuilt with a NBA Finals appearance in mind. This season is likely Lowry’s best shot to get to the Finals.
But they face a massive uphill battle. Teams that win the first two games of a seven-round series have a 94 per cent chance of winning that series.
“How do I find the solace? I find the solace when OKC got beat by 34 and 24 and went down 2-0 and then won four straight against a great, great, great, great San Antonio team (in 2012),” said Toronto head coach Nick Nurse. “I don’t know, I don’t really give a crap about that, I just want our team to play their ass off and get one game, and it changes the series.”
Last season, Cleveland lost its first two games to Boston in the conference finals, before roaring back to win the series.
Nurse said there could be some changes to his rotation Sunday after some horrible performances on Friday. Marc Gasol, in particular, had just two points on 1-for-9 shooting, and looked lost all night.
“I think there could be more than one lineup change coming at us,” Nurse said. “I think your question here is this: Are you gonna dance with the one you brung to the ball. It’s not easy.”
Game 4 is Tuesday in Toronto. A Game 5 if necessary would be in Milwaukee.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press