We hold these truths to be self-evident: That Kyle Lowry and his butt are the toughest this team has ever seen; that DeMar can carry us through hell or high water; that the Raptors tend to lose inconsequential games and come through on the ones that count.
The games thus far this week have been inconsequential. Lowry breaking his butt during the Nets game was not a consequence of playing the Nets, it was just Lowry playing his hear out per usual. Similarly, the Heat match turning… dramatic, had more to do with James Johnson’s aggression issues and I guess Goran Dragić’s shitty attitude, than with the Raptors style of play. Granted DeRozan was trying to do an awful lot to fix that style of play. Still, these games were eventful, but not big deals.
And I don’t mean inconsequential to our record, or that it was fine to lose them (it was), only that these games shouldn’t have posed a big problem for an easy win. The fact that they did doesn’t mean the team is coming off the rails, to the contrary, it means they’ll be grinding that much harder on them tonight and Saturday, against Cleveland and Golden State, respectively. The next two games are big, they’re important—I promise I’m not trying to freak you out—and are exactly the kind of games the Raptors are best at buckling down for.
Put playoff games and the team’s shaky history with them out of your head for a second. Regular season games against the juggernaut teams of the NBA are typically the ones in which the Raptors reveal all the tenacity in their collective toolbox. When it comes down to grit, wild plays and pulling out all the stops against all odds, the big ticket games, the games of consequence, are where it all comes out.
The two glaring gaps in this assumption, of course, come in the likely absence of Lowry and Ibaka’s 1-game suspension.
The team looked a little lost facing Miami without Lowry. Most noticeable was the lack of the prominent, fluid ball-movement we’d gotten so used to coming down this recent stretch of handy wins. A feeling confirmed by DeMar post-game, “I mean, the whole game is completely different without Kyle…It’s everything. Everything. You can kind of tell with our ball movement wasn’t all the way there like it normally (would) be when Kyle’s out there.”
The Raptor’s recent successes were decisive and looked easy because Lowry was spotting the gaps before they happened and shoring them up. The new style of play the team is embracing has added another level to Lowry’s game, primarily in his leadership. It was always there, but he’s been given a new platform and amplification in his calls. Like DeRozan went on to say, “He’s a general on the floor. He sees things when they need to be called.”
But a big difference between Lowry being out last year and this—touch wood—short hiatus now, is that the team struggled because Lowry was who they were all relying on, not only in the clutch but with basic ball movement. A huge portion, if not the entirety, of closing games was simply relying on ISO ball, swapping the plays to support Lowry or DeRozan. The Raptors are now enjoying what it feels like to spread out, to take the pressure off the mainstays and distribute more evenly across the floor. Lowry is a leader, a key contributor, basically one of the best guys there are in general, but he’s no longer the linchpin that by removing will cause the team to crumble. DeRozan has more than proven he’s good to shoulder the weight and was likely struggling under the adjustment of his game in the first Lowry was gone. Provided Wright and Powell can step up to eliminate some of the simple mistakes they made in key minutes of the last two games, he’ll have the help he needs to distribute and get it done.
The Raptors bench gets touted a lot as a secret weapon, a trusty reserve, but that’s because it’s true, and now is especially the time to lean on them. Despite a momentary scare with Delon holding his shoulder the other night, he’s looking good and has shown he’s able to add length, both defensively and on the offense, which will be a key area to hone in on tonight against the Cavs, who have the second worst defence in the league. Wright’s length and explosiveness make him exactly the type of player Shumpert and even LeBron have a hard time defending against. While precious gem Fred VanVleet may not be the fastest or longest, he has no problem barreling through big screens and is the least likely to get shook by LeBron just standing still and staring at him, much like Lowry.
And hold off on your dirges for Saturday’s game, because by no means is it already an extinction event. Remember back in October, when Siakam scored 20 points against the Warriors the last time the Raptors squared up against Golden State? Sure, the Raptors still lost, but Siakam has been having even bigger games since then and is a competent and steady enough player to realize how to shift his games with higher stakes. Threes will be a challenge, obviously, and are useless to guard against in a lot of ways. The best antidote will be setting DeMar up to make his own to match, but not relying on a 3-point game and being able to fall back on plays that drive the ball should three-point shooting fall short, or turn fleeting and unreliable. Rebounds are going to be crucial with Durant hanging around, and JV will need to be working double time in tandem with a hopefully fresh Ibaka, ready to come back and get his. And heck, a few rare JV-threes wouldn’t hurt.
Tenacity is the hardest thing to predict but has been something the Raptors prove they can pull out again and again when all else fails, much to the chagrin of opponents that think they’ve got ‘em beat. It’s not particularly pretty, because it often involves flailing, diving, driving, stealing, falling down and taking advantage of even the smallest of gaps and missteps made by opposing teams, who in this case are probably the sharpest and tuned of the league, but it works. It’s going to mean being completely zoned in from the jump and not letting LeBron and the magnetism he’s so skilled at deploying as intimidation on the court and mind-control on the refs (half jk) take over, and coming back ready to do it again against a team who is, contrary to global opinion, fallible.