The NBA is all about narrative.
We see it in award races, we see it in rivalries, and we certainly see it when it comes to specific players, who will have one-time (or in some cases, multi-time) incidents stick to them like glue and permeate their legacy either temporarily or forevermore.
Examples aren’t difficult to find in a league rampant with vigorous, ever-brewing personality. Think about LeBron James’ reputation as someone who needs to join with superstars to win due to his formation of the Heatles in Miami, or Stephen Curry’s reputation as a Finals fraud because he has accumulated three rings without a single accompanying Finals MVP, or perhaps even Karl-Anthony Towns’ reputation as a player who can only put up good stats on a bad team because the Minnesota Timberwolves have failed to make the playoffs three out of the four years he’s been there.
We, the fans and the media and the pundits, love narrative. It’s fun and it’s fascinating. Great stories are always so, and the world runs on them. But oftentimes narrative can also be unfair, especially when it comes to athletes who have had a label sewed to them by the ignorant or those with opposing rooting interests.
Such has been the case with Kyle Lowry, who, despite being the best player (until this season) on the Toronto Raptors during the golden era of the franchise, has had to hear his name repeatedly associated with the notion of underperforming in the playoffs.
That narrative, of course, is overblown. Lowry has had some rough post-season games and series, certainly, but he has also had plenty of good ones. In fact, just last season he had quite a good playoff run, though that tends to be forgotten thanks to the soul-sucking sweep delivered by LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
And now, with Game 1 of Toronto’s 2019 opening round series against the Orlando Magic in the books, the voices decrying Lowry as a viable playoff threat are louder than ever thanks to the guard’s failure to put a single point on the board in an 0–7 shooting performance over 34 minutes.
It is a shame that this single statistic, which has ballooned into its own harsh story, will only add to the negative connotation that Lowry is a playoff dud and is a primary reason for the Raptors’ shortcomings when that simply isn’t true.
Lowry’s game has never been about raw production, although he has had some great seasons (2016–17, for example) to that effect. Instead, his talents lie in the intangibles, in the small crooks and crannies of the game that exist between the actual beginning and end results. He is the maestro, not the music-maker, orchestrating just out of view but ensuring his stamp is all over the final product just the same.
That is how Kyle Lowry plays basketball, how he became a five-time All-Star, and how he performed in Game 1 against the Magic.
The Raptors were an astounding 65 points per 100 possessions better with the 33-year-old on the floor, with both the offence and defence cratering when he sat. He also garnered an individual net rating of 15.5, by far the highest on the team, and led the starting unit to a tremendous net rating of 28.9 in 21 minutes.
The reason for these numbers is simple: When Lowry is on the floor, the Raptors are able to generate good looks that, more often than not, result in a made basket.
Here, Lowry passes the ball to Pascal Siakam in the half-court, then makes his way around a Marc Gasol screen to duck down into the paint where he sets a subsequent screen on Kawhi Leonard’s man. Pausing only momentarily, he then shoots back up towards the arc as Siakam sets yet another screen, freeing him up to take the ball from Gasol in a hand-off that leads into a pick-and-roll. Taking a purposeful dribble forward, Lowry hits his big with a timely pocket pass, guiding the Spaniard into completing a strong finish.
Lowry doesn’t necessarily have to be handling the ball much (he only had a 13.2 usage rate in Game 1, second-lowest on the team) to make the offence run, either. In this example, he merely brings the ball up the floor, passes it off to Fred VanVleet and then floats around the perimeter as the latter drives past a Serge Ibaka screen and into the paint, where he proceeds to kick the ball to Norman Powell in the corner. Powell fakes, drives, and dishes out an off-the-mark pass to Lowry, who manages to leap and catch the rock before firing it right back to VanVleet, who has snuck his way back to an open spot on the strong side.
To further illustrate the point, Lowry’s presence on the court resulted in the team making more assisted field goals than unassisted, with the latter happening whenever he sat. During the starting unit’s run to open the third quarter, for example, they shot 8–12 before Nick Nurse subbed in VanVleet with 4:15 to go. Of those eight made baskets, six of them were assisted.
Without Lowry on the hardwood, the offence immediately got gummed up thanks to two glaring issues.
The first was that, for whatever reason, the regular season trend of allowing VanVleet to initiate the offence (which was rarely successful) continued here, as FVV was often the lead ball handler entering actions despite having a starter or two on the floor with him.
Here he runs the pick-and-roll with Ibaka at the arc as Siakam stands idly in the corner and both Lowry and Powell float around. VanVleet rejects the screen (something he does frequently), and, instead of looking for Ibaka on the pop, drives right into the size and length of Khem Birch, leaving his feet as soon as he feels some contact and hoisting up a tough shot.
The second issue was, with the lack of Lowry’s expert-level passing and general ball movement, units simply played more isolation basketball. As frequently as baskets were assisted on with Lowry on the floor, they were equally unassisted with him off of it, with Leonard and Siakam in particular taking their opponents one-on-one after the initial play had fallen through due to the primary playmaker’s failure to create.
Here, Leonard receives the ball in the corner after just such an occurrence. With no other choice, he blows past Evan Fournier and is met by Jonathan Isaac at the rim, forcing him to adjust mid-air and miss the layup. He even manages to snare his own rebound immediately afterwards, but is once again thwarted by the stifling defence.
The Raptors attempted to remedy the problem of the primary creator by finding Gasol at the elbow, but the Magic recognized this at once and stuck to their guys tightly, preventing any cuts or open off-ball movement and rendering Gasol’s passing ability virtually useless.
Even down the stretch with the game still in the balance (94–94 with three minutes to go), Lowry was never a standout problem aside from a single poor pass to Danny Green that was picked off by D.J. Augustin.
Indeed, it was Green who moments later allowed Augustin to blow past him on the perimeter for a layup, it was Gasol who missed an open triple in the corner off a nice Leonard dime, and it was both Leonard and Gasol in the pick-and-roll defence when Augustin nailed his dagger three to ice the contest.
It should also be noted that the Magic played a great, if unsustainable, game. Augustin (averaging 7.1 points in the playoffs for his career) went berserk, hitting a cornucopia of difficult shots; Michael Carter-Williams hit a pair of unlikely threes (26.3 per cent from distance this season); and the team defence was expectedly smothering.
None of this is to excuse Lowry’s point total (yes, of course he needs to have more than zero going forward) or to insinuate that he had some sort of incredible game—he didn’t. But he also didn’t have an awful one, despite what the raw numbers may suggest, and ultimately the Raptors’ main concerns came with him out of the game.
But that won’t be the story, because it doesn’t fit the label he’s been given.
The NBA is all about narrative, true, but sometimes you have to read between the lines.