With five minutes remaining in the second quarter, Kyle Lowry called for Serge Ibaka to set a screen in his direction. He fed the rolling Ibaka for a mid-range shot in the big man’s sweet spot, but quickly scurried back out to the 3-point line as a release valve. Both pick-and-roll defenders had flown towards Ibaka to prevent the shot, leaving Lowry free. Ibaka twisted away from the hoop in mid-air to find his teammate. Lowry caught the ball and calmly knocked down the 3, scoring his first points of the game after nearly twenty minutes of action.
That Lowry hadn’t scored in a quarter and a half didn’t matter much. The Raptors got off to a comfortable lead behind the shooting of Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, and Norman Powell. Yet in those minutes Lowry was the one quietly keeping the offence humming, pushing the tempo and hitting teammates in stride. The moment Lowry subbed out with a five-point lead, his absence was glaring. The bench quickly crumbled with an eight-point swing in which neither O.G. Anunoby nor Pascal Siakam could keep them afloat.
Upon returning to the floor, Lowry took control of proceedings, following up on the 3 by snaking another Ibaka pick-and-roll and nailing a pull-up jumper. He then drove to the lane, drawing the help defender and kicking the ball out to a wide-open Powell in the corner. At this point the bear had been poked, and Lowry demanded a high screen from Gasol to free himself for a pull-up 3. He followed that by exploiting Sacramento’s lacklustre transition defence with another pull-up triple. As the halftime buzzer blew Lowry had scored or assisted on 14 of the team’s final 17 points, but most importantly he had recovered Toronto’s lost lead.
The idea that Lowry drives winning is not a novel concept. This has been the calling card for his defendants against those that try to diminish his value by scanning over raw box scores.
However, the main point of focus in Toronto’s impressive regular season has rightly been on the staggering number of career years players on the roster are having. Powell and O.G. Anunoby are now reliable starters, both of which are showing signs of blossoming into something beyond a role player. Siakam is a borderline top ten player. Ibaka is having the best scoring season of his twelve-year career. Fred VanVleet has earned himself a pay day. End of bench project players are chipping in with admirable performances.
Yet, as has been the case for the past seven years, when Toronto’s performance falls into a ditch they still rely on Lowry to pull them out.
The four-game western road trip has magnified this fact.
Lowry +25 in 132 minutes
Non-Lowry -19 in 48
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 9, 2020
When looking at those drastic on-off numbers, I’m still not sure whether to be impressed, concerned, or both. Lowry remains on the top of his game, reintroducing his hyper-aggressive attacks to the rim. He is averaging nearly three more free-throws per game than last season. But still, the dependence on a 33-year-old guard to bail the team out during the regular season with rollicking runs to the rim and pull-up 3s is nervewracking.
The past four games have exacerbated things. In an attempt to find Lowry some rest, Nurse has attempted to use Siakam as a direct replacement for him in the Lowry-and-bench lineups. However, those variations of Siakam-and-bench lineups are Toronto’s worst by net-rating over this road trip. Siakam can lift the team’s ceiling but doesn’t have Lowry’s floor-raising ability.
There are signs that Nick Nurse is trying to ween his team away from being Lowry-dependent for the playoffs. Despite two ugly offensive games, the Raptors repeatedly went to Siakam late in the fourth quarter and he responded with a handful of high-degree-of-difficulty buckets to secure both wins. Ironically, Lowry was still a pivotal part of this, serving as the other half of an unstoppable combination by screening for Siakam to get the Cameroonian a mismatch. This decision to put the ball in Siakam’s hands and live with consequences is a shrewd decision. Siakam profiles as the best player to create his own shot in a playoff environment and needs as many reps as possible beforehand.
It is also impossible to look at Toronto’s recent Lowry-dependence and not acknowledge the injuries to Fred VanVleet and Marc Gasol. VanVleet’s absence has stretched the Raptors already thin backcourt depth and squarely thrust all playmaking duties onto Lowry’s shoulders. Neither Patrick McCaw nor Terence Davis II has played well enough to allow Lowry to sit for longer than a brief breather; the former continues to look overwhelmed in a higher usage role offensively and the latter has hit the rookie wall with a rough shooting slump.
Prior to his hamstring injury, Gasol had actually been the net-rating king for the Raptors. Although they are drastically different players, Gasol and Lowry share floor-raising attributes that make their teammate’s life easier and help the team win. Gasol had plenty of rust to shake off on Sunday evening’s game but he may be the key to easing Lowry’s workload in the backstretch of this regular season.
Toronto remains in a great spot and now sits three games ahead of Boston for the second seed. Lowry remains infallible. Things could be a lot worse. But still, the Raptors need to find a way to not capitulate without Lowry to ensure that he is both fresh for the playoffs and that they can confidently turn to a Plan B in the case of an emergency.