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Anunoby, VanVleet step up against former mentor Lowry in impressive Raptors win

The returning hero’s second visit didn’t have quite the same emotional intensity as Kyle Lowry’s first game back in the building that he sent electricity through on so many occasions.

Time marches on. There was no video tribute and Lowry didn’t wear his championship ring. There was – as there ever will be – a warm, enthusiastic cheer when his name was called during the pre-game introductions and a warm smile from Lowry as he waved and acknowledged the crowd.

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But the tributes didn’t extend much beyond that for the Raptors legend who helped engineer Toronto’s long run of respectability and eventually, a title in 2019.

That was then. Now there was, after all, serious business at hand.

Even beyond the fact that one of the Toronto Raptors franchise icons now works for the visiting Miami Heat, regular-season games between the two franchises have taken on a certain kind of lore, as two clubs rostered with well-coached, hard-playing professionals who believe they’ve been over-looked, disrespected, and under-rated most of their careers have typically produced so hard-edged, well-played games the past few years.

Each team was short-handed. The Raptors were without starters Pascal Siakam (groin), Gary Trent Jr. (hip) as well as key reserves Otto Porter Jr. (toe) and Precious Achiuwa (ankle), while the Heat were without starters Bam Adebayo (knee) and Tyler Herro (ankle).

Both teams were also trying to navigate the early season challenges in the Eastern Conference by keeping above the .500 mark.

Lowry has been following his old team with interest:

“My guys are still on this team,” Lowry told reporters before the game. “I support by guys. Freddy, OG, Pascal, I just like to see how they’ve matured and become better individual basketball players and better men.”

In that respect, Lowry couldn’t lose.

The Heat did, as the Raptors grinded out an impressive 112-104 win that improved their record to 9-7 and secured the season series over Miami, who fell to 7-8, 2-1.

But Lowry could see his protégés blossoming before his eyes, no one more than O.G. Anunoby, the one-time, one-dimensional forward who was asked to play defence and stand in the corner early in his career. He’s come a long way in what is now his sixth season.

He showed all of his progress against the Heat as he led the Raptors with 32 points and 10 rebounds. He shot threes, he handled the ball, he drove the paint and he made some good decisions when he got there, such as when he found a cutting Chris Boucher for a critical bucket down the stretch or bailed out the Raptors when he caught a Fred VanVleet air ball and scored after the Heat had cut an eight-point Toronto lead to two with just over three minutes left.

VanVleet was a factor too, as he helped turn the game around as he took command in the third quarter on his way to a 23-point, eight-assist night.

The Raptors did their thing as they won the offensive rebound battle 16-4 and the turnovers 23-14. Toronto shot 51.2 per cent on while take 86 shots and the Heat shot 54.5 per cent, but only managed 66 field goal attempts.

Lowry finished with 19 points and has been playing better this season for Miami than he did last year, when injuries and a health issue within his family cut into his availability and his preparation time. His numbers were actually better than most might think – his 60 per cent True Shooting was the second-highest mark of his career – but he shot the ball poorly in the playoffs when the No.1 seed Heat were eliminated in the second round Lowry took his share of the blame, his 29 per cent shooting making him an easy target.

The pressure mounted this year as the Heat started 2-5 and Lowry was shooting just 35.4 per cent from the floor, but as Lowry and Miami hit the floor in Toronto, things were beginning to shift. The Heat arrived having won three straight and five of their past seven to even their record at 7-7. Lowry was scoring 13.9 points while adding 6.3 assists and 5.7 rebounds on 43.8 per cent shooting. Not exactly peak Lowry (did we properly appreciate 22.4 points and seven assists a game with a 62.3 True Shooting in 2016-17?) but certainly well within the range of ‘very effective Lowry’ that he punched in with like clockwork during his nine seasons in Toronto.

He wasted little time serving notice of his intentions against his old team on Wednesday night as he pulled up for a triple on his first touch. But mostly he looked to make plays in the flow, but there were some vintage moments, as when he pulled up for a long three in transition after a Barnes turnover and then blew up a Raptors pick-and-roll with Barens on the sidelines, took the ball the other way and threw a perfect alley-oop to a sprinting Caleb Martin as the Heat were on their way to building a 10-point lead before a pair of Fred VanVleet free throws and Anunoby tip dunk trimmed the Heat lead to 60-54 before intermission.

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It was all expected. Lowry wasn’t his most bothersome, chaos-causing self, but the outlines were there.

“I think since we know him so well, it’s maybe not as annoying as it might be if you didn’t know him,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of matching up against is old point guard. Listen: He’s feisty and he’s tough, he’s jawing at everyone and the refs, he’s taking charges and making plays. I always used to say when he was here that I’d never seen a guy in a whirlwind of four or five back-to-back-to-back-to-back plays to do so much on both ends, to change the momentum of the game: dive for a loose ball and make a big 3 and come down and take a charge and then fly into the bleachers and save another ball. It’s all in this whirlwind, and the arena would be going crazy. I don’t know if that’s annoying. I think it’s kind of cool to watch. It’s cool when you had him on your team, I know that much.”

The Raptors would have to make do.

The first half was notable for some point guard play elsewhere. VanVleet got off to a slow start after missing two games and parts of another with a non-Covid illness. He missed his first six shots before getting a couple of lay-ups to go as the Heat made a point of running him off the three-point line, which shows that they can read a scouting report. VanVleet did throw a couple of alley-oops to rookie centre Christian Koloko, who has struggled to finish around the rim, so he deserves extra credit for that.

Perhaps most impressive was the ball-handling chops shown by Anunoby who regularly initiated the offense in the second quarter, pushing the ball into the frontcourt at full speed. On one occasion he took it the length of the floor and through the Heat defense for a 1-on-5 fastbreak, on another he crossed over his defender at mid-court, accelerated and found Khem Birch wide-open for a dunk as Anunoby put up 12 of his 14 first-half points in the second quarter.

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Anunoby kept rolling in the second half, but he had more help. The burly Raptors wing and VanVleet had their fingerprints all over a game-shifting 21-5 run in the third quarter. Shots that VanVleet was having a hard time getting to fall in the first half began to drop, but his play-making chops were on point as well.

VanVleet’s best play might have been when he fought off a defender to make a catch on a wayward pass that would have likely been a Heat lay-up the other way, gathered himself and split a Heat double-team at the top of the three-point arc before firing a pass to a wide-open Barnes for a dunk. VanVleet accounted for 13 points and four assists in the third, with three of those helpers finding Anunoby who had nine points in the quarter as Toronto started the fourth leading 84-79.

As was to be expected, the Heat and Lowry pushed back from there, but the guys that the GROAT (Greatest Raptors of All Time) left behind were more than up to the task.

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