Josh Lewenberg: Toronto Raptors’ win over Brooklyn Nets a game of what ifs – TSN

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TORONTO – The doctor will see you now.

After making his return to the lineup in Wednesday night’s victory over Brooklyn, Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry held his virtual office hours.

At 35 years of age, Lowry’s list of honours and accomplishments is long, and it’s about to get even longer. He’s a six-time all-star, Olympic gold medalist and NBA champion. His jersey is retired at his alma mater, Villanova, and after nearly a decade with the Raptors his name is all over the franchise’s record book.

But by this time next month, he’ll be able to add another line to his resume. Doctor.

In recognition for his contributions on the court as well as in the community, Lowry will be one of seven people to receive an honorary doctorate from Acadia University during its upcoming 2021 spring convocation, the Wolfville, N.S., institution announced earlier in the day.

If you didn’t think he was going to have some fun with his new degree, well, you don’t know Kyle Lowry.

“Hey, it ain’t official yet, but when it’s official y’all will only say that as my name,” the veteran point guard told the media following his team’s 114-103 win. “Just know that I will not respond to anything other than Dr. Lowry.”

And what will he be a doctor of, exactly?

“Doctor of greatness,” he joked.

“I’m taking [VP of player health and performance] Alex [McKechnie’s] job. They’ll have to pay me a little more.”

In his first order of business, Dr. Lowry has given himself a clean bill of health.

Lowry had appeared in just two of the previous 13 games. He missed seven of eight with a reoccurring toe infection that required treatment and some down time, but after returning and logging 37 minutes in a loss to New York earlier this month, he was held out of four straight contests for “rest”.

If there was ever any question where that decision came from – the team or the player, who happens to be one of the league’s fiercest competitors – Lowry cleared that up.

“I’m very well rested,” he said with a laugh when he was asked if the toe issue factored into his nights off. “I’m very healthy and very, very, very, very well rested.”

Recently, the Raptors have been playing it safe with Lowry and their other key players, to put it mildly. In each of their previous two games, wins over Orlando and Oklahoma City, they held out four starters. Lowry, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet have all missed multiple games for rest or with minor injuries, or some combination of both. Over the weekend, the team was fined $25,000 by the league, not for sitting guys out, necessarily, but for failing to accurately report the reasons why they were sitting guys out.

For the first time in 12 games, dating all the way back to March 29th, all four of those players were available against the Nets on Wednesday.

Predictably, Toronto got off to a slow start as its returning players shook off some rust and rediscovered their rhythm and chemistry. Once they found it midway through the second quarter, it became a game of what ifs.

What if that group had stayed healthy? What if three of them – Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby – didn’t have their seasons disrupted by COVID-19 and its aftereffects? What if they had stolen a few games early in the year and gotten off to a better start so they didn’t have to spend the rest of the campaign playing catch up? And, perhaps the most confounding hypothetical of them all, what if they had addressed their most pressing need sooner?

With the Raptors close to full strength, Nick Nurse got his first glimpse of what the rotation could look like now that he has a few more capable big men at his disposal, and he liked what he saw.

The additions of Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie have helped solidify the centre position, a season-long issue for Toronto. Even small differences have gone a long way.

“I think that they’ve done a good job of just doing little things,” Nurse said of the team’s new centre tandem. Birch and Gillespie each logged 24 minutes, splitting the position and ensuring that Toronto always had a traditional big on the floor.

Coming into Wednesday, Lowry hadn’t played with Birch since the Canadian made his Raptors debut against the Knicks. VanVleet had only shared the court with him and Gillespie briefly in the win over Orlando last week. Siakam and Anunoby are still getting comfortable with them, as well. And surely they’re all still getting comfortable playing together. Still, it didn’t take long for them to get on the same page, which speaks to how well the two big men have fit in.

“First of all, they’re doing a lot of dirty work,” Nurse continued. “They’re up helping those guys on screen and rolls, they’re up helping them on pin downs, they’re rebounding or blocking out and maybe letting some other guys get some rebounds.”

“I think the [other guys] just liked that they’re doing the dirty work and playing hard and just kind of being an opportunity scorer. That’s kind of what fits with those guys pretty well right now.”

Gillespie was a force defending at the rim, blocking five shots. Birch, who started and was on the floor to close the game, quickly became a trusted partner in the pick and roll for Lowry. The two showed the kind of chemistry that the veteran point guard has built with countless big men over the course of his career but could never quite build with Aron Baynes, who has fallen out of the rotation entirely.

“He’s just kind of figuring out the offence,” Lowry said of Birch, who hit his third three-pointer in a couple weeks with the Raptors after knocking down four in three and a half seasons with Orlando. “He’s been a pro. He’s always killed us on the offensive glass [when we played against him] and I think just his knowledge of the game has given us a little bit more. Those two just running the floor, big bodies have kind of helped us out.”

Suddenly, it looks like the Raptors could be onto something. Their four vets seemed well rested on Wednesday. Siakam and Anunoby combined for 52 points on 18-of-33 shooting, while VanVleet scored 17 points and Lowry chipped in with 14. We know they can play small with Gary Trent Jr. and rookie Malachi Flynn, who both moved to the bench, and now they finally have the size to go big.

With the play-in tournament still in reach – Washington has a half-game lead on Toronto and a full-game lead on Chicago for 10th place and the East’s final play-in spot – the question is whether they’re willing to change their approach.

The Wizards are getting hot, having won six straight games, and the Raptors have one of the league’s toughest remaining schedules. At full strength, they should be good enough to at least make things interesting, assuming that’s the goal. But what is the goal?

Will they go for it, or is the plan to continue finding rest nights for Lowry and others over the final 13 games? Was Wednesday’s convincing win over an admittedly undermanned and overworked Brooklyn team a sign of things to come, or merely a glimpse of what could have been?

We know what Dr. Lowry would prescribe.

“I think the play-in is pretty cool in this type of year,” he said. “As far as us going for it, I think we have an opportunity. If we get there, we will be a dangerous team. We have a team of champions, we have a team of experience, but we have to get there.”​

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