Lowry’s back gives us something to talk about | Norm is finally consistent | Reminder that the Raptors are really good
Lowry’s return to the Raptors did not go quite as planned Tuesday. Before a reporter could even get the full question out about his 2-of-18 shooting night, Lowry was ready to take ownership in the plainest of terms.
“That’s terrible,” he said.
Stripped of the context of how the game played out, a poor shooting night in his first game back after nearly a month on the shelf. A fracture in his left thumb precluded him from performing most basketball activities, limiting him to cardio work and assistant coaching duties. With the Raptors light on practice time of late — and as a matter of strategic principle in recent years — Lowry said Tuesday’s game, preceded only by a workout around 4:30 p.m. to test his readiness, was the first full basketball action he’s had.
“That’s rhythm. I missed shots. I didn’t force anything,” he said. “Everything I shot came within the offense, and honestly a lot of those 3s went in and out, layups. It’s just rhythm and a little bit of timing. Honestly, I haven’t done basketball-type playing since New Orleans, so it takes a game, but I’m sure I’ll be better next game. It’s nothing to be concerned or worried about.”
That is a reasonable explanation. There is room to quibble with Lowry coming back without getting a full practice in where he could shake off any rust, but he and the team figured he could help the Raptors win while doing that. History suggests that more often than not, that will be accurate. It takes players time to rediscover their legs and their wind and their shot, and a bit of a buffer period is to be anticipated.
Context matters, though, and the lens of a 121-110 overtime loss to the Miami Heat casts his return in an unflattering light.
Instead of working out the kinks in a victory where he slid seamlessly back into the groove the Raptors had been thriving in, the game stands out in contrast to the team’s winning ways. Sequencing matters. It makes it too easy for causation to be misapplied, with lamentations of his return so predictable that both Eric Koreen and I tried to preemptively warn against overreacting to a post-injury adjustment period this week. To those eager to ascribe narrative, it can look as if the Raptors were humming along and the returns of Lowry and Serge Ibaka have disrupted that. Lowry’s woeful shooting night is Exhibit A, with higher usage than normal, a clear commitment to shooting 3s (he was 0-of-10) even if his shot wasn’t there and too many minutes from Nick Nurse in his first game back.
See, winning is a habit, and once you get a taste, it’s hard to shake the itch for it. Both these franchises have prided themselves on building a foundation of work ethic, battling to the very end, and settling for nothing less than seeking their best selves night in and night out. It is a foundation that takes joy in its marriage to the process, unwavering through better or worse.
“You’ve seen this program being built for several years now,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said before going on an extended soliloquy of what has made the Raptors successful. “They have an identity, they have a culture, they have something that they believe in and playing hard and competing every single night is one of those deals, and you have to respect that. Last year, that was hard-earned, and that became a big time habit for them to be able to compete all the way through.
“When they lose some players this year after a championship, to continue to have that. Identity is not something that happens overnight, that’s not something you turn on and off like a faucet, that’s something that’s been developed within their culture for months and years. You’re seeing it now, they’re playing at a high level, particularly defensively… they are a get-down-and-dirty defensive team that you have to execute against.”
Not knowing which team he was referencing, those words could just as easily be applied to the Heat in the time since they were forced to confront the reality of a LeBron James departure after four straight trips to the NBA Finals. Add Chris Bosh’s unfortunate health issues and Dwyane Wade’s temporary absence before retirement and they had every reason to tank but didn’t. They’ve won 37, 48, 41, 44 and 39 games since, making the playoffs twice. Talent may come and go, but effort and intensity is non-negotiable. They have worked to develop their prospects like Duncan Robinson — who finished with 22 points — have drafted intelligently when they’ve had the opportunity (three total picks between 2015 and 2018) and have pushed themselves to be more consistent.
Discipline is required to play this style. Teams like the Bulls blitz pick-and-rolls often, but get roasted because their defenders lack focus or don’t know where to be on the floor. Toronto is equipped with smart, talented veterans who can fight over screens or communicate and rotate like they’ve already seen the play happen. And they hustle. Siakam receives praise for his offensive progress, but he still plays hard on defense. Gasol is getting older, but he remains a defensive genius. Kyle Lowry missed 11 games with a fractured thumb and Serge Ibaka was sidelined for 10 games with a sprained ankle, but other players have stepped up. VanVleet, Norman Powell, and undrafted rookie Terence Davis make for a feisty backcourt, while Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have brought frenetic defensive energy off the bench to the frontcourt.
With so many capable defenders across the roster, the Raptors are able to use a drastically different game plan each night. Toronto’s funky zone defenses, in particular, are a joy to watch. So far this season the Raptors have run the box-and-one against Lou Williams and Trae Young, a triangle-and-two against Lillard, and a standard 2-3 zone against a long list of teams, including the Lakers.
Zone can throw the opponent out of rhythm; it’s like a boxer switching from an orthodox to a southpaw stance. Playing zone comes with risks: Defenses are more vulnerable on the offensive boards and one missed rotation could lead to an open layup or 3. But the Raptors are willing to allow 3-pointers. Teams attempt the second-highest share of 3s in the half court against the Raptors, but the fewest amount of shots near the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Raptors are essentially doing what the Bucks did last season with their own aggressive spin on it—they’re prioritizing rim protection over preventing 3s. How long will it be until other teams copy the strategy?
During Lowry’s 11-game absence, Powell was given the opportunity to start and made the most of his shot, averaging 15.8 points and shooting 41.4 per cent from three-point range on a little over five attempts per game.
This run marked among the most consistent stretches by Powell, as being inserted into the starting lineup seemed to level off his usual feast-or-famine performance that’s he’s shown over the course of his NBA career.
However, with Lowry’s return, Powell was always going to be the guy relegated to the bench because, as head coach Nick Nurse made it known, that’s his position on this team.
“I just kind of told him, ‘Norm, great, great job filling in, but this, in reality, is your role. Your role is more an off-the-bench guy for this team. So let’s go kick some butt in this role and start getting used to it and let’s just do that,’” Nurse said after the Raptors practised Wednesday afternoon.
This isn’t an easy thing to hear, to be told plainly that your job is to come off the bench, but Powell seems to have taken the message with no issue.
“He understood. I think he understood,” said Nurse of how Powell responded to Nurse’s frankness.
Historically, Powell has performed better as a starter, and he’s not alone. Many players have trouble finding and maintaining their rhythm coming off the pine. And to make matters worse, no Raptors player has seen their role fluctuate as much as Powell during his five seasons in Toronto.
Now, once again, he’s been asked to readjust.
“[Before Tuesday’s game] I just kind of told him, I said, ‘Norm, great job, great great job filling in, but this is in reality your role,’ ” Nurse recalled. “ ‘Your role is an off the bench guy for this team, so let’s go kick some butt in this role and start getting used to it.’ And I was proud of him for doing that last night. He was huge.”
Powell started the evening on the bench and that’s where he was supposed to finish it. But with the offence struggling and the 26-year-old in a groove, Nurse decided to close with him instead of OG Anunoby. Powell ended up playing the final 23 minutes of the game.
It’s no secret that Nurse has been looking for more consistency from the swingman. A few weeks ago the Raptors’ often-candid head coach challenged Powell, both privately and publicly.
“There’s something there we need to fix,” Nurse told reporters in mid-November. Powell had just scored 26 points in Dallas a few nights after being held to two points in Portland.
“We don’t expect him to do it every night, 20-plus [points] every night, but maybe instead of it being one out of four nights we can get it to one out of three, and we chip away at it.”
Since then, Powell has scored in double figures in seven of eight games. He did have a couple of rough outings sandwiched in between – in wins over Philadelphia and New York – but he’s been excellent over the last three contests, which included a career-high 33-point game against Orlando.
There have been times as recently as two weeks ago and on occasion before that when Powell’s ability to perform consistently has been questioned.
Nurse, in the most recent example, suggested a couple of weeks ago that Powell had to even things out a bit.
“I wish we could pencil him in for about 16 each night, rather than 26 one and zero the next,” Nurse said at the time. “Twenty-one and four, or whatever. But he’s certainly, he’s capable.”
Since that time — again in a starting role for Lowry — over eight games, Powell has had just two games in which you could say his consistency wavered. That was a seven-point performance against the Knicks on Nov. 27 in a Raptors blowout and two nights earlier against Philadelphia, when he had just 10 points in a tight win.
Every other game, he has been between 15 and 33 points and over 50% shooting from the field.
Powell may not see time with the starting five again this year, but his role is an important one. Last Friday, with the entire roster in a shooting funk, it was Powell’s 33 points that saved the day. Tuesday night again with the rest of his teammates in a roster-wide shooting funk, Powell’s 23 points kept the Raptors in a game they had no business being in.
As Nick Nurse was saying Wednesday, as the Raptors prepared for Thursday’s home game against the Rockets, at a certain point ingenious play calls and clever schemes only take a team so far. A willing performer capable of seizing the moment becomes a franchise necessity.
“It’s individual talent. I think that’s where everybody will tell you, especially in the guts of the game or playoff games or whatever, it’s really nice to give a guy the ball and have him get a basket,” Nurse said.
The topic was top of mind, perhaps, because Toronto was coming off its first home loss of the season on Tuesday night, a game in which Pascal Siakam was rendered ineffective down the stretch by the Miami Heat. Siakam, of course, is having a tremendous season. No Raptor has done more to fill the hole created by Leonard’s absence than the league’s reigning most improved player. But faced with a Heat team that plays physical defence — and particularly hamstrung by the one-on-one coverage of Bam Adebayo, who held Siakam to 0-for-3 shooting in the seven-plus minutes they were matched up, according to player-tracking data at NBA.com — Siakam never found his rhythm and certainly didn’t rise to the moment when it mattered.
Siakam put up precisely four field-goal attempts in the second half and overtime combined. Still, Nurse went to him in crunch time for a simple reason: Siakam is the most likely candidate to be Toronto’s go-to deliverer of important points. Isolated with the ball on the left wing with 30 seconds remaining in regulation and the game tied on Tuesday night, Siakam dribbled into a crowd and couldn’t draw so much as a foul as his weak shot attempt was blocked.
Whether it was a rare off night or a telling exposure of a limitation, that’s a question only the remaining 62 games and beyond can really answer. Let’s just say dismissing Siakam as unequal to the task of overcoming a weakness has historically been a bad bet.
“It takes a lot to beat us,” Nurse said.
A lot of it has to do with hard lessons learned in their championship journey, which is what Nurse and several players have been alluding to since training camp began. Lowry and Fred VanVleet, Ibaka and Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby and Norm Powell lived through the intensity of last summer and came through it better and harder and more confident than ever.
Siakam has certainly emerged as a capable replacement for Leonard as the go-to guy in the Raptors offence, despite attracting more defensive attention than he ever has. In the first 20 games, he had eight games of 30 or more points, his three-point shooting has improved to nearly 39 per cent efficiency per game — he was never better than 36 per cent before this season — and he’s taking about three times as many per game this year as last.
But he’s not really the biggest surprise; he’s always done whatever was asked of him. What’s new, and most important, is that the Raptors have shown again a great adaptability and the ability to develop players while winning.
Davis and Hollis-Jefferson filled in admirably in the absence of Lowry (11 games) and Ibaka (10) — Toronto went 9-2 without Lowry — and that’s testament not only to player development but to a system that players have confidence in.
And that’s a byproduct of last season’s success. Going through the intense championship run set the Raptors up to start quickly because they know what it takes to win at the highest stakes imaginable. It has allowed Nurse to start from a far higher baseline this season, a factor in Toronto getting off to a start that is just one game worse than last season’s record-setting first quarter.
Where would Pascal Siakam be picked in a 2016 NBA Draft do-over? Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis talk Spicy P, Fred VanVleet as one of the top undrafted free agents ever, what the rotation will look like in the long run with Kyle Lowry back and if DeMar DeRozan would be a good fit on the current squad.
Because of this breakout season, VanVleet is potentially earning himself a high eight-figure (or even nine-figure) deal next summer. On ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and the Hoop Collective podcast, Bobby Marks said, “One team told me…that they think [VanVleet] is going to get between $25 and $30 million per season.”
To the casual NBA fan, paying that much money for VanVleet may seem outrageous, but the combination of his rapid improvement for a great team and the specter of a weak free-agent market make him a logical candidate to sign a big contract in July.
However, VanVleet may not be the only Raptor employee getting a pay raise next year. After a triumphant 2018-19 season, longtime Raptors president Masai Ujiri may be on the move to the division rival New York Knicks.
Per Newsday’s Steve Popper: “[…] Many in the Raptors organization believe that…changes could come higher on the organizational chart, and that if the Knicks’ struggles continue, at season’s end, [owner James] Dolan will make an effort to convince Masai Ujiri to come to New York. And the fear within the Raptors organization is that Ujiri will go.”
Pascal Siakam made the leap. He’s a legit star. Superstar, maybe. The signs were there during his breakthrough regular season and playoff run in 2018-19. But you never know how a guy is going to respond after he gets promoted from secondary option to leading man — and gets handed a four-year, $130-million US extension. But the herky-jerky 25-year-old forward has exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. He’s averaging 25.6 points per game (11th in the NBA and up from 16.9 last season) along with 8.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists. He already has eight 30-point games this season. Siakam is also near the top of the NBA with 36.8 minutes played per game.
Fred VanVleet has stepped up too. The 25-year-old guard is still riding the momentum from his late playoff run last spring. He’s averaging a league-high 37.5 minutes per game and a career-high 18.6 points — erasing any worries of a potential void after Kyle Lowry broke his non-shooting thumb on Nov. 8. Hard to believe that VanVleet was basically a non-factor in last year’s playoffs until Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final. That’s when he rediscovered his shooting touch, and he’s been one of the most important Raptors ever since.
Load management isn’t such a big thing anymore. That’s all anyone talked about last season: How many games will Kawhi play? How many minutes can he handle? Will he get hurt again? It was part of the deal for keeping that particular superstar happy and productive, and it obviously paid off. Now it feels like the Raptors have turned back the clock to a time when people actually cared about the regular season. We’ll see how Siakam and VanVleet hold up, but from a night-to-night entertainment standpoint it’s been great to see the team’s two most productive players actually, well, playing so much.
This team might still have room to grow. Serge Ibaka missed 10 games with a sprained ankle suffered in the same game where Lowry broke his thumb. The big man returned on Sunday and scored 13 points. Lowry could be back any time now — maybe as soon as tonight. It’s fun to think about how good the Raptors might be with a full deck for Nick Nurse — the NBA’s coach of the month for November — to play with.
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