It looked as if perhaps Kyle Lowry was sliding into a rare, uncharacteristic slump. Two nights after putting forth maybe his worst game of the season, shooting 0-of-7 on threes in a blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Lowry was cold once again. He opened the Toronto Raptors’ game against the Utah Jazz – their first home game in weeks – by tweaking his left ankle, and whether that played a factor or not, he started out 2-of-6 from the floor. The Raptors, as the often do, followed his lead, starting sloppy, lethargic, and disorganized, letting the Jazz get out to an 11-point lead.
Head coach Dwane Casey was reaching and tinkering once again in the absence of Patrick Patterson, starting Lucas Nogueira at power forward and using some unfamiliar bench lineups. His hand has been forced in that regard, and the dual-center look made sense opposite a large Jazz frontline. It wasn’t particularly effective early on, though, and it took until the vaunted Lowry-and-bench unit (it didn’t really exist in that form here, though) hit the floor in the second quarter for the Raptors to settle down at all. The Raptors were able to slowly chip away as the half drew closer, with DeMar DeRozan scoring 12 first-half points, Terrence Ross providing a nice spark off the bench, and Jonas Valanciunas matching Rudy Gobert’s physicality and answering Casey’s call for him to be more dominant on the offensive end.
The Raptors have been down this road a few times lately. They know that on most nights, especially ones like this where an elite defensive opponent can throw so much length and so many looks at DeMar DeRozan, they need their point guard to be on to compete with the best teams in the league. They’re also keenly aware, for better or worse, that they possess a second gear they often keep in reserve, and they are often able to flip the switch after a shaky quarter or half. And, of course, there’s the recent memory of both of those points amalgamating into one, with Lowry becoming a one-man NOS button – forget the gear change – against the Jazz on Dec. 23.
Perhaps fueled by the news that the Cleveland Cavaliers were pulling even further away on paper, or perhaps after taking a quick look in my mentions at halftime, Lowry came out of the break on fire.
It’s a damn good thing, too. The Jazz did their best to lock up DeRozan, who still managed 23 points and chipped in on the glass to make up for a shaky shooting night, and that left the burden in the second half on the team’s other pillar. Valanciunas cooled some on the offensive end but responded with much better work defensively, DeMarre Carroll shifted into an offense-free role but one that included some of the best defense he’s played all year, and the shooting outside of Lowry went n the tank, with the non-Lowry Raptors going 9-of-34 over the final two quarters.
Still, there was Lowry, getting to the line, hitting deep threes, tricking defenders into leaning one way to create space for himself the other way, and generally being a pest on the defensive end. Lowry would score 28 of his 33 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the half, taking nine free-throw attempts and knocking down triples in triplicate, essentially carrying the offense for the bulk of the half. It was yet another masterful performance from a player who’s had a ton of them this year, and one that had the Jazz, down their best Lowry-stopper in George Hill once again, at a bit of a loss.
“I don’t want to get into analyzing how we could guard Kyle Lowry differently,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder, who had called Lowry his favorite player before the game, said afterward. “We have to do a better job on him. Same thing happened to us at home. He’s good, he took advantage of us, and it hurt us.”
Strangely, as the Raptors nudged ahead of Utah as the game wore on, it was actually the Lowry-and-bench iteration that nearly lost the momentum. Casey stuck with Nogueira starting in the second half, to slightly better results, but the faith in Pascal Siakam had deteriorated even further, leaving the second unit a giant question mark. Jakob Poeltl got a brief look, Norman Powell saw some time in smaller groups, and then Casey finally found an effective unit with Carroll at the four and Ross in the game.
“We’re searching. With guys hurt we’re trying to find matchups, not only that matchup but the rotation,” Casey said after the game. “There’s a chain effect, a domino effect of everything you do, you plug a guy in, you take from the second unit. We’re searching right now trying to find the right matchup.”
Casey’s tinkering eventually paid off. The starters with Ross as an extra wing in place of Nogueira proved a lethal defensive five-some, and the Raptors held the Jazz to 36.4-percent shooting in the second half. Valanciunas did his job limiting the second-chance points, and in turn earned himself the trust of his coach down the stretch, a somewhat rare occurrence of late. Carroll helped cool off Joe Johnson. And after quickly getting into the penalty in the fourth quarter, the Raptors tightened things up, sending Utah to the line just four times in the game’s final seven minutes. They also simplified the offense some, not running isolations but scrapping some of their more detailed, scripted plays in favor of some simpler old stand-bys, possibly wanting more time in the clock to improvise or reset if the initial actions couldn’t produce a mismatch.
All the while, the offense remained mostly Lowry – DeRozan had a few big buckets down the stretch, but Lowry scored 14 points in the game’s final seven minutes to pull away and close it out.
“Kyle’s been doing a great job,” Carroll, who was visibly excited when asked about his own health and performance after turning in 39 quality minutes, said. “He started the game off trying to get other guys involved. He knows at the end either him or Deebo has got to close it. Deebo, he was a little off tonight. But Kyle stepped in and took it on his shoulders and kind of willed us to that win.”
Lowry kept hitting, the defense remained dialed in, and the Raptors, asleep at the wheel for chunks of their first game back after a long road trip, found their footing. In doing so, they beat a quality Jazz team that’s been playing some great basketball, sweeping the season mini-series despite not turning in two of their sharpest efforts. They haven’t been at their best consistently of late, and yet they were able to find a way, which has kind of been their modus operandi here in the slough of the middle of the schedule. It would be great if they were still in evisceration mode as they were about a month ago, but beating this Jazz team, even without Hill, is a quality win, especially down Patrick Patterson once again.
The Raptors searching a little bit, to be clear, and that’s understandable but maybe a little concerning given the games they have coming up. Once again, they showed they can beat good teams while searching, especially if what they find in the short-term is a red-hot Kyle Lowry.