Toronto coach Dwane Casey knew he was in for a fitful sleep that night in December 2013. The Raptors had a deal all set. Kyle Lowry was going to the Knicks for Iman Shumpert, Metta World Peace and a future first-rounder.
“When I went to bed, I understood Kyle was being traded, we were going in another direction,” Casey said. “Then lo and behold, they changed their mind here. Thank goodness. I didn’t want to lose Kyle, his feistiness, his toughness. Sometimes the best deals you make are the ones you don’t. It was a difference-maker, that deal being turned down by New York.”
A difference-maker for both sides. Since killing that deal, which rates among their worst moves in the past often-tortured decade, the Knicks have auditioned no fewer than 18 — honest, eighteen — guys for their point-guard role.
“Of course I’ve thought about it,” Lowry said of the “What if?” aspects, “But ancient history. It’s a situation I can’t really think about because it didn’t happen.
“But not my fault,” he added laughing.
So while everyone from Raymond Felton to Emmanuel Mudiay directed the Knicks, the Raptors with Lowry won three Atlantic titles, 48, 49, 56 and 51 games entering this season. Victory No. 49 came Sunday, a 132-106 Garden wipeout of the Knicks, Toronto’s follow-up to a spirited win over Houston that stuffed the Rockets’ winning streak at 17. The Raptors are more than legitimate in their bid for their first Finals appearance.
“It’s just a different feel about how we’re playing,” Lowry said. “Moving the ball side-to-side. More attention is to ball movement, catch and shoot a lot more 3s.”
Lowry scored 12 points and recorded four assists — three of them on 3-pointers, so there’s another 11 points via passing — in that third quarter. In one stunning 49-second span, from 6:25 to 5:36, he scored a 3-pointer, a three-point play, then another 3 as Toronto upped its lead from 10 to 87-71. Lowry finished with 16 points and seven assists and fellow All-Star DeMar DeRozan had nine points. And neither played in the fourth quarter.
“DeMar is the talent but Kyle is the engine of our team. Him coming back, it meant the world,” said Casey, who experienced the same joy of that non-trade when Lowry re-upped as a free agent last summer.
“They’ve got one of the best backcourts in the league. The [Houston] game, they went toe-to-toe with Harden and Chris Paul,” said one veteran NBA scout. “The NBA is a perimeter game, so the team with the best guards has the best opportunity. They’ve got an experienced starting five, they’ve developed a nice young bench with good complementary parts. They can play small [or] big. They’ve got versatility. They’ve got experience.”
The Raptors lost in the East semis last year and the Eastern final in 2016 after two first-round exits. But they insist this year can be different.
“It’s a lot different,” DeRozan said of the feel around the Raptors. “Learning from your mistakes, having gained more experience. There’s so much we can take from previous failure, previous success and apply to now.”
One factor that can’t be discounted is playing time.
“Dwane has done a terrific job in restraint in not playing DeRozan and Lowry stupid minutes,” the scout said. “He’s gotten their minutes under control. I’m guessing they don’t have a guy in the top 10 in minutes played.”
Not even the top 20. Entering Sunday, DeRozan’s 34.1 minutes led Toronto. And he was tied for 23d in the NBA. Lowry, at 32.2, was tied for 48th.
“It’s a two-way sword,” Casey said, noting how early in the year the Raptors lost close, tough games with the bench on the floor late. “But it’s been good cutting down on Kyle and DeMar’s minutes.”
So in what the Raptors billed as a “trap game,” the two stars never left the fourth-quarter bench. Raptors reserves scored a season-high 69 points and 11 different Raptors recorded at least one assist.
“Their bench is playing great,” said Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek, “and that’s why they’re a legitimate contender.”
That and because of a trade that never happened four years ago.