Two weeks, 32 contenders, 30 fan vote showdowns, and more grainy highlight reels than the second round of the NBA draft have led us here. A lot of Raptors have balled exceptionally hard over single 48 minute stretches in the last 25 years. Some of those guys — cough, Terrence Ross — might even be justifiably aggrieved they’re not still in the title fight today. But the people have spoken. A pair of the greatest regular-season individual outings from Toronto’s past have made it through four rounds of voting to stand here today. By tomorrow afternoon we’ll know for certain who did in fact ball the hardest.
You shouldn’t be surprised by which two players earned spots in the final. There are two things about DeMar DeRozan you cannot deny: he’s one of if not the most beloved players in Raps history, and his 52-point game against the Bucks absolutely ruled. Kawhi Leonard rode the wave of recency bias and latent post-title glee to the final four as a 10-seed with his 38-point dismantling of the Blazers last March, a game that of course featured an game-winner that portended other game-winners to come. But foreshadowing aside, there was no logical argument in favour of him beating out DeRozan in the Wayne Embry Regional Final.
Meanwhile, with the top-two entries in the Saunders region, Kyle Lowry was guaranteed to be here. Although unlike most double-digit seed March Madness darlings, the Final Four was not too great a stage for Lowry’s 14th-ranked offering. In what, by the numbers, was the biggest upset of the tournament, Lowry’s afternoon of stat-stuffing and comeback-orchestrating against Dallas earlier this season toppled his career-high 43 and game-winning shot against Cleveland in February 2016; it wasn’t even close, as the victor took two-thirds of the fan vote. Astonishing scenes.
I won’t lie. It’s a bit of a disappointment to not see a duel between the tournament two number ones. I fear a lopsided final in favour of DeRozan’s top-overall seeded game where we could have seen a true heavyweight bout. But perhaps I’m undercutting the punch Lowry’s game against the Mavs packs, too married to the Basketball Reference Game Score metric that governed the overall seeding, the fear of bias towards the fresh and new keeping me from embracing Lowry’s rousing performance that December afternoon as the truest Kyle Lowry Over Everything game of all. A razor-thin margin could very well be in the cards.
Before we break down the cases further, let’s take a look at the two finalists, along the highlights of their respective finals-worthy solo performances. To help us size up the match-up, we asked Raps colour man Jack Armstrong for his two cents as well.
(1) DeMar DeRozan scores franchise-record 52 vs. Milwaukee — 01/01/18 — 43 minutes, 52 pts, 5 rebs, 8 asts, 1 stl, 1 blk, 17/29 FGs, 5/9 3FGs, 13/13 FTs, +9, 44.1 Game Score, Raptors win 131-127 (OT)
(14) Lowry scores 32-8-10, leads 30-point comeback vs. Dallas — 12/22/19 — 32 pts, 8 rebs, 10 ast, 1 TO, 12/23 FGs, 5/13 3FGs, 3/4 FTs, +5, 20 4th quarter points, 26.7 Game Score, Raptors win 110-107
If any part of this tournament was preordained, it was DeRozan’s 52 points on the Bucks’ headtops making its way through the Embry Region. Toronto’s all-time leading scorer never looked better over nine years with the team than he did for the 43 minutes and 27 seconds he spent dicing up Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and friends to ring in 2018.
“Not only statistically, but just watching him, that was maybe his finest hour as a Raptor,” Armstrong said of DeRozan’s record-setting night.
“You just kinda know it when you’ve watched a guy a lot,” he continued. There are certain nights that you look and say, “that’s a better version of his normal self,” he said, likening the heights above normal that DeRozan reached to what Kobe Bryant achieved the night he dropped 81 points.
“The more that game went on, he just was in that proverbial zone that athletes talk about. I always joke when a guy is in that zone: Don’t snap your fingers. There are certain times when you look at an athlete, and they literally are in, I don’t know if it’s a hypnotic state or whatever, but they’re in that kind of out of body experience where you’re like “this is everything I’ve ever wanted myself to be.”
This was the piece de resistance on a sparkling 2017-18 resumé for DeRozan. The season prior was all about his scoring, to the extent that he flirted with breaking records set by Michael freaking Jordan. However, after a second-straight playoff loss to the Cavs, the Culture Reset of the following season was only going to work with the buy-in of a more complete version of DeRozan. Between the triples, the assists, and the every-level scoring, that night against Milwaukee represented the apex of DeRozan’s advancement into modernity, validating the Raptors’ decision to stick with the core that by that point had turned 50-win seasons into child’s play. They of course won 59 during DeMar’s season of rebirth. DeRozan enters the final, rightfully, as the heavy favourite.
If you’re hoping to make a stats-based case for Lowry to pull off one last upset, you’re not going to find one. Sure, he’s got the rebound and assist edge over DeRozan, but that’s where the advantages end. DeMar has him beat in overall scoring, efficiency from both two and three-point range, and in Game Score — the 17.4 point difference in Basketball Reference’s all-encompassing box score figure in the final is the largest we’ve seen in a match-up since the tournament’s opening round. DeRozan’s got the numbers argument locked down. Lowry’s hopes hinge on the degree to which the voters are in touch with the more whimsical elements of basketball.
A vote for this Lowry game is a vote for the very concept of Kyle Lowry, where numbers are always secondary to his maniacal genius. It’s also an acknowledgement of every other game Lowry’s taken over in the way only he can, a list far longer than the three that made it into the bracket. A 32-game bracket of only classic Lowry performances would be damn compelling theatre on its own.
You can sense the tonal shift that hits when Lowry decides a game is his and his alone. Sometimes a bear-poking is the inciting incident, others it’s his innate sense for what his team needs that sees him arrest control and hunt buckets. Regardless of how it happens, the momentum of a signature KLOE game cannot be restrained. The Mavs know this well.
“It was a pretty cool experience to watch,” said Armstrong, who was watching the Raptors comeback as a spectator that day, with Sportsnet on dual radio and TV duty.
“I just think he was playing like a whirling dervish. Just driving the ball with great intensity, getting to the rim, shooting the ball with confidence, making plays for teammates … he led the way, but I think he started feeding off of teammates as well. I just think it defines him, he’s one of those guys that just has a remarkable competitive spirit and juice and passion about how he plays, where there’s just no let up.”
“When you looked at the deficit — it was improbable, almost impossible,” Armstrong added. “When Kyle Lowry looks back on his career in Toronto and reflects on certain games and certain moments, I’m sure that will be right, right, right at the top of the list.”
Another argument in Lowry’s favour is borne out of the circumstances under which the game with Dallas was played. Toronto was just days removed from losing Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and Marc Gasol in the same game down the road in Detroit. Against the Mavs, the shuffled up starters around Lowry struggled. OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Patrick McCaw and Fred VanVleet combined to shoot 11-of-38, with only VanVleet breaking double figures. It wasn’t until Terence Davis II, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Malcolm Miller and Chris Boucher joined Lowry in a chaotic full-court press that the Raptors put a comeback on the table. Making it work with anybody is Lowry’s M.O., maybe never more so than during the month or so he spent as the team’s undisputed number one option this season around the turn of the calendar.
“He was absolutely remarkable in that stretch,: said Armstrong, who did the TV call for Toronto’s next game, a back-to-back in Indy that Lowry nearly won on his own in OT. “And obviously he’s been remarkable this season. He looks like a guy that’s completely unburdened from the pressure now of legacy, and title and all that — he’s playing free and easy and being that guy that’s completely fearless and coming at you, taking on all comers and making plays left, right and centre. And in that game — that’s a game that on most days in professional basketball … that you look and you say, “come on, you know, really let’s get ready for the game tomorrow.”
Instead of welcoming the sweet release of garbage time, Lowry turned in one of the most masterful quarters of his career, earning himself a spot in the final, and as revealed by Armstrong via email, the vote of the Raptors’ long-time colour voice.
Lowry and DeRozan are the support beams upon which the most successful era of Raptors hoops was built. Their best evenings meant different things, microcosms of each player’s story at distinct times in their personal arcs. DeRozan’s got the numbers case. Lowry’s holding down the intangibles. And you, the voters, have the final say.
Be sure to vote for who you think should be named the GRRSPoAT Champion at the link provided.