And so ends one of the great first rounds in NBA playoffs history. Before we get into the conference semifinals, here’s a fond farewell to the players, coaches, and rappers who made the first two weeks of the postseason unforgettable.
Zach Lowe: For seven seasons, Kyle Lowry was the NBA nerd’s secret, in part because he was kind of a prick. Officials at all of Lowry’s NBA stops had their own stories about his “difficult” personality — Lowry sniping at teammates in practice, or loudly questioning the intelligence of a coach in front of the entire team.
“You heard about his personality,” says Masai Ujiri, the Raptors’ GM. “Was he coachable? You heard about his attitude, and about him questioning authority.”
The NBA nerd got to enjoy how Lowry’s tenacity manifested itself on the court without worrying about his behavior outside of games. He is bottom-heavy and quick, a thick little bowling ball who loves sliding chest-to-chest with opposing point guards on defense. He gambled out of scheme for steals, something that irritated some of his coaches, including Dwane Casey, but that also made him entertaining — a daredevil.
He’s listed at 6-foot, but he’s shorter than that, and he loves throwing his thick body into the lane against bigger defenders. His ass, to be a bit impolite, is a legendary weapon — perfect for bumping guys just far enough to the side, so their longer arms cannot reach his floater. His game overflows with creativity — weird pivots, long step-through moves that get him out of jams after he’s picked up his dribble, and improvisational give-and-goes few point guards try anymore:
“When you’re not tall,” Lowry says, “you have to figure things out.”
He did that this season after hovering between starter and backup on mediocre teams. Ujiri sat down with Lowry before the season and to discuss Lowry’s precarious status in the league. “All I said to him was, ‘Nobody ever questioned the basketball part,’” Ujiri recalls. “‘That means you are a phenomenal player. Why not work on the other side?’ But it’s not about what I said. He matured. People are going to say it’s a contract year, and all that, but he’s been spectacular. This is him now.”
Lowry’s agent, Andy Miller, hooked Lowry up with Chauncey Billups for another come-to-Jesus chat over the summer. “He told me to grow up,” Lowry says. “Be mature. Be a man.”
Lowry is married now, with a 2-year-old son, and being the man of the house makes the old basketball tantrums seem silly. “Life doesn’t have to be all negative,” Lowry says. “You can enjoy it and be happy. Living happy makes things a lot different.”
There’s also this: “He’s lost a lot of weight,” says a laughing Patrick Patterson, who also played with Lowry in Houston.
Lowry has long been thrilling to watch on League Pass, but the Raps’ series against Brooklyn exposed his pinballing game to the national audience. He stole an inbounds pass in Game 1, sealed Game 2 with low-to-the-ground pick-and-roll baskets that didn’t seem like they should have gone in, and exploded for 36 insane points in Toronto’s Game 5 win.
He emerged again as one of the league’s better defensive point guards, dialing back his worst gambles. He threw his body around to the point of exhaustion. DeMar DeRozan was an All-Star, but this was Lowry’s team. He was its best player, its beating heart.
Lowry is a free agent now, and the good feelings will be tested. His representatives will start negotiations high, perhaps near the max, and Toronto has to weigh lots of variables in responding: the short list of suitors that have both a real need at point guard and a desire to spend; the future of Greivis Vasquez; the state of the Raptors’ cap sheet for July 2016, when Kevin Durant, a close friend of Vasquez’s, will become a free agent; and whether this new Lowry has staying power.
For now, Lowry feels the sting of a missed series winner that would have crowned a triumphal season. The shot was his to take, and the outpouring of affection for him afterward — from fans, from Casey, from DeRozan — spoke loudly about his new place in the league. It took seven years, but Kyle Lowry has arrived.
Chris Ryan: We’ve become so familiar with the tactical side of NBA coaching that we sometimes lose sight of the importance of character. I don’t mean moral character — though that comes into play when you’re talking about Mark Jackson — I mean the importance of a character, someone whose words and actions demand attention. Rick Carlisle, Erik Spoelstra, and Terry Stotts all have their charms, but none of them can hold a candle to Jackson. You want to talk about coaching characters? Mark Jackson was Captain Ahab.
Between the late-season assistant coach purge and the constant speculation about his job security (Jermaine O’Neal: “You get the feel that no matter what happens, our coach won’t be our coach next year”), the palace intrigue surrounding the Golden State Warriors has been fascinating. And Jackson has been at the center of it all. In the last week, we’ve seen stories about the possibly divisive role of religion in Jackson’s locker room (read this great Sam Amick piece for details) and the presence and possible banning of Jerry West at his practices. Everyone associated with the Warriors seems ready for Jackson to be gone, except for the actual Warriors players, who seem ready to die for him. Not boring!
I know Jackson is a preacher, but I’m far more interested in him as a politician. Watching him try to shape the narrative and control the spin — hinting at a media conspiracy or possibly gaining an edge with his comments about boycotting Game 5 — was almost as entertaining as the basketball in the series. Well. Almost.
netw3rk: Imagine it’s 1999, in an alternate universe where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an analyst on Inside the NBA, and hearing him say something like this: “Listen, Shaq is a talented player. But if he wants to be considered the greatest center of all time, he needs to play for at least 20 years, win six titles, and score more than 38,000 points for his career. I know what it takes to be considered great, and if Shaq wants to be called great, he needs to quit rapping and develop a skyhook, and maybe appear in a Bruce Lee movie.”
This is pretty much what Shaq did to Dwight Howard during the Rockets center’s one-round stay in the playoffs.
When it comes to Howard, Shaq’s arguments are pretty much pure haterade, stemming from who gets to be called “Superman,” peppered with a few critical fig leafs about footwork. It was endlessly amusing.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that hating on Howard is somehow unreasonable. The way he handled his exit from Orlando was a masterwork of tone-deaf jackassery. He turned off Lakers fans — a.k.a. the only fan base he had left — by staggering semi-attentively through a disappointing season (in which he averaged 17.1 points and a league-best 12.4 rebounds) and, most important, feuding with Kobe. He carries himself with a general air of fake-ness. His jokes are painfully unfunny.
And in the end, all Howard did in the playoffs was average 26 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks a game. He was the Rockets’ best player. Howard went for 27 points, 15 rebounds, and four blocks in Game 1 versus Portland, leading Shaq to muse, for the billionth time, that Dwight “needs to dominate.”
Sure. Just like Shaq needed to shoot skyhooks.
Jared Dubin: I snickered last July when the Bobcats made Al Jefferson a three-year, $41 million contract offer. You’re the Bobcats, I thought. What are you doing trying to skip steps?
Then Big Al came out and did Big Al things all year. He set career highs in usage rate, assist percentage, defensive rebound rate, and — most shocking of all — defensive win shares. He exceeded any and all expectations (except maybe Danny Chau’s). If centers were still on the ballot, he might’ve been an All-Star; he’s got a heck of a shot to make an All-NBA team.
Of course, just his luck, the Cats drew the Heat, Jefferson “ripped” his plantar fascia (OW), and he had to watch the last game of a four-game sweep in a suit. But not before we got one last look at what Big Al had to offer. In the first quarter of Game 3, on one leg, Jefferson went to work. He scored 15 points on a delightful array of post moves, using his hook shot, drop-step, whatever he could think of to barrel his way to scores. It was classic Big Al, and frankly, it was all he could muster.
Now he has time to rest, and to get healthy, and to come back next year and do it all over again. This time, I can’t wait.
Jason Gallagher: With 5:40 left in the fourth quarter, down by 29 points, with everyone well aware of Dallas’s fate, Monta Ellis dove headfirst for an unsuccessful attempt at a steal.
That would be Ellis’s final play of the 2013-14 season. And that play embodies why I loved watching him this season.
Ellis managed to transform himself from leaguewide punch line into a leader of a tremendous playoff basketball team. He did this by playing his ass off in all 82 games of the regular season (even through a tailbone injury) and impacting the Mavs’ offense in ways he really hasn’t before. Sure, his shot selection was an improvement, but it was the nights when Ellis couldn’t get it going that he impressed me the most. Ellis found ways to affect the game beyond just scoring by playing for his teammates, whether it was finding spot-up shooters off penetration or running a deadly pick-and-pop game with Dirk. I feel confident in saying that Nowitzki doesn’t have his amazing near-40/50/90 season without Ellis.
That is a sentence I never thought I’d ever write in my entire life.
That final play by Ellis was it for me. After a horrendous game, shooting 3-for-11, Ellis dove headfirst for a ball he couldn’t possibly gather in a game he had no shot of winning. Suddenly, Monta Ellis just isn’t that funny anymore.
Corban Goble: Though Terrence Ross’s series performance generated enough wind to power Ontario until next year’s playoffs, his last-minute schoolyard save typified the plentiful pluck of this year’s Raptors. Though he struggled shooting the ball to an epic degree — an open 3 Ross lifted during a ferocious late Toronto charge barely grazed iron, and his body language brought to mind the phrase “bruised confidence incarnate” — Ross summoning the presence of mind to make a huge play in the final seconds of Game 7 was one of the series’ signature moments. He didn’t allow his toxic offense to contaminate his defense, giving the Raptors a great shot to win a game they had been trailing by 10 in the waning moments. They exited the court to a standing ovation, and though they lost a hard-fought series, a statement was made.
Juliet Litman: Poor Chandler Parsons. He is now seared in our collective memory as a man flying through the air, one step behind Damian Lillard, the victim of an improbable shot that will be replayed for months. We probably won’t remember by this time next year that he was just 0.9 seconds away from being the hero, from being the guy whose putback forced a Game 7.
No matter how many times you rewatch the final sequence from Game 6, Parsons still ends up alone and dejected, sitting on the scorer’s table. In many ways, those final two plays of Houston’s season are a perfect encapsulation of Chandler Parsons. He’s so close to the cusp of something. He’s a solid contributor, but not a star, even though he would like to be. He has a sneaker deal and shaved his hair into a more pronounced Mohawk in exchange for the temporary privilege of driving Dwight Howard’s car. Parsons said, “I’m driving that thing every day until we win the championship. It’s unreal.” Classic Chandler. He goes into the offseason as aspirational as he came out of it.
Andrew Sharp: I could watch Drake watch anything. On Sunday, he was sitting right behind Dwane Casey for Game 7, so anytime the ABC cameras panned to the Raptors, we got to see the Global Ambassador in all his glory. His goofy-ass facial expressions, his trying-way-too-hard celebrations when things went right, his heartbroken-teenager face when things went wrong.
Drake is just so good at being Drake.
If the infamous lint roller incident weren’t enough, he turned around and flipped it on everyone. The Raptors had a lint roller giveaway …
… and Procter & Gamble came on board as the official lint roller supplier of the Toronto Raptors. A day or two later, an OVO Raptors lint roller went for $55,100 on eBay. I don’t even know which of those sentences is more amazing.
But all of it was great. The Photoshops, the thousands of thousands of Miami jokes, and days like Sunday, when he was basically the official mascot lurking behind Casey. I don’t know if I actually like Drake, but I’ll miss having him around the playoffs. The only consolation is that he really will pop up in South Beach three weeks from now. And even if he doesn’t, Sprite is gonna be running that awful commercial until the end of time. Drizzy Potato Head will always be with us.