TORONTO — Resiliency defines Kyle Lowry.
It always has.
He has always been at his best with his back against the wall. It’s almost as if he needs it to be there in order to thrive.
“He’s a little pit bull. I mean, you question him, and that’s when he rises to the occasion,” Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after his supposedly down-and-out point guard delivered yet another dominating performance.
“I’ve seen it so many times,” Casey continued. “Throughout the playoffs, everybody has second-guessed him, and he’s always bounced back. He’s done that his whole life, through high school, through college, through his first few years in the NBA, and it’s made him the All-Star that he is.”
Before the series even began, Lowry’s seemingly harmless compliment about LeBron James was viewed as offensive by some. And then, following an eight-point Game 1, Lowry was criticized for quitting on his team because he retreated into the locker room to decompress late in the first half of a 10-point Game 2.
The Raptors were down 0-2 and faced the inevitability of a four-game sweep.
But Lowry wasn’t about to let that happen.
After combining for just 18 points in Games 1 and 2, Lowry scored 20 in Game 3 and 35 more in Game 4, enabling the Raptors to knot their series with the heavily favored Cleveland Cavaliers at 2-2 with a 105-99 win on Monday night at Air Canada Centre. Game 5 is Wednesday in Cleveland.
“It’s felt like a boxing match, with me just finding my rhythm, finally figuring things out and calculating what they’re doing to me and understanding what they’re going to do to me and how to exploit it, and I think that’s how it’s been for me these playoffs,”said Lowry, who shot 14-of-20 from the field while also contributing five rebounds, five assists and three steals in 44 minutes.
“Just taking the calculations and figuring it out.”
Lowry scored 15 of his 35 points in the second quarter, and the Raptors led by as many as 18 early in the second half before nearly suffering a collapse that would’ve taken a long time to recover from.
After the Cavaliers shot just 3-of-22 from 3-point range in the first half, they converted 6-of-8 from downtown in the third quarter and made their first 11 shots in the fourth, exploiting Toronto by using James with screen-and-rolls at the elbow to take a three-point lead.
But Lowry and the Raptors would not be denied down the stretch, finally clamping down on defense and knocking down shots when it mattered most.
The 30-year-old veteran scored the knockout punch with 22.5 seconds left, when he switched onto J.R. Smith and blew by the Cleveland swingman for a layup that gave Toronto a 105-99 edge.
“I wanted to get some space and not draw a double-team,” Lowry said. “I just made a good play off a quick decision and got to the basket.”
Lowry and DeMar DeRozan (32 points, 12 in the fourth) combined for 67 points, their most ever in a playoff game. Bismack Biyombo added five points, 14 rebounds and three blocks while playing tenacious defense both on the interior and the perimeter. And the Raptors, who shot 53.8 percent overall, got to the free throw line 19 times in the second half after failing to get there in the first half.
“Biz is one of our best athletes,” Casey said of the 6-foot-9 Biyombo’s ability to guard at the top of the key. “He’s always teasing about chasing lions and everything in the Congo. I’ve got to go over there and see that. But he’s got great feet, and his length — he’s longer than you think, so that allows him to guard perimeter guys pretty well. That’s why we don’t mind switching with him.”
In the process, the Raptors became the first team since the 2013-14 Oklahoma City Thunder to tie a conference finals series at 2-2 after trailing 0-2, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. Low-post threat Jonas Valanciunas (sprained right ankle) was active after missing the previous seven games but did not play. Perhaps he will in Game 5.
“Nobody gave us a snowball’s chance in you know where to beat Cleveland, but we’ve just got to keep on churning, keep on working and keep on grinding to try to continue to win,” Casey said.
And so the seesaw that is the 2015-16 postseason for Lowry and the Raptors continues.
Not even Lowry himself can figure out his inconsistent scoring ways. According to ESPN’s Mark Jones, Lowry received positive text messages of support from Thunder forward Kevin Durant early in the playoffs, when Lowry was enduring his shooting woes.
“No idea. No idea. No idea,” Lowry repeated. “Just must-wins, I guess. Now I just need to figure out how to do it all the time.”
The key for Toronto will be finding a way to win in Cleveland, a place the Raptors lost by a combined 50 points in the first two games of this series.
“We just have to stay composed, understand what we’re going into and what they’re going to do, have fun and make sure we hit back,” Lowry said.
Lowry himself needs to continue to play with aggressiveness and assertiveness.
If he does, who knows.
Who would’ve expected this series to be 2-2 after how it started?
Who would’ve expected the Raptors to be two wins from a trip to the NBA Finals — even if they remain a long shot to beat the Cavaliers two out of three?
“Cory [Joseph] is literally always on me, telling me we need you to go, go, go,” Lowry said. “He does it every game, and I just feed off his energy and enthusiasm.
“I think we have a shot. We’ve always believed in our team, and I just think now we have a chance to go out and do it.”