From the obvious to the subtle, Kyle Lowry’s offense against the Lakers was sublime

When Kyle Lowry returned to the Los Angeles Lakers game midway through the fourth, the Toronto Raptors were leading by a point, 78-77. Kyle Kuzma hit a triple to put the Lakers ahead by two. A Raptors pessimist, conditioned by years of LeBron James handing the Raptors late-game losses, may have expected the game to slip away. Crumble like a sand castle in the tide. James, after all, remains perhaps the NBA’s premier closer. But a funny thing happened instead. Lowry took control. The Raptors won the next six and a half minutes by 18 points, crushing the will from the West’s apparent best. Lowry’s brilliance, physical and tactical control, and clutch shot-making were triplicate pillars of Toronto’s victory. He performed when the game was tightest, but it was only a continuation of Lowry’s near-perfect performance from jump street. He won the game in every way possible.

Lowry is not a James Harden-style offensive player; he doesn’t dominate every play in identical fashion. Rather, every possession is new with Lowry, like reading a choose your own adventure. For the Raptors, only the result remains the same. As Samson Folk wrote in our newest creation, Minute Basketball, chaos is Lowry’s greatest weapon.

Toronto’s offense against Los Angeles — ostensibly the league’s third-best half-court defense — was reliable and consistent with Lowry at the helm. In a low-scoring affair riven by fantastic defense, Lowry was Toronto’s only consistent source of good shots. The Lakers top-locked many of his actions, trying to drive him inside the key where the team’s length could bother Lowry at the rim. Lowry responded with intention, driving with force at the back line of the defense. Frequently, that resulted in Lowry contorting himself like a bullfighter to create layups.

Lowry used his body to shield much larger defenders from the ball; he’s a master at protecting the ball well before he leaves the floor. And then of course he launches himself past the basket while slowing his arm, all in service of making the shot difficult to block. That’s how Lowry, despite standing six-foot-zero and possessing little — in comparison to NBA athletes — in the way of vertical burst, shot 59 percent at the rim this year. Against the Lakers, he used nine possessions at the rim, making three baskets and earning six free throws. His body control was marvelous, as was his ability to absorb contact without suffering injury.

Lowry exploited a leading defensive player of the year candidates in Anthony Davis in one of the smoothest isolation baskets of the game. This inside hand finish took everyone on the court by surprise, resulting in no defensive challenge.

Of course, when Lowry had a chance behind the arc, he used it willingly. He shot five of nine from deep, which was slightly above his season average, in terms of attempts. The Lakers did a solid job of taking away Lowry’s jumper, but he was aggressive in searching for it whenever he had a chance. Either in transition or out of complex screen actions, Lowry created the space he needed to launch, even if it required triggering from a few feet behind the line.

But Lowry’s truest damage was done, as always, in the space in between, the fabric inside the form of the game. He finished with six assists, but he created for others far more often in indirect ways. He led the game with 14 rebounds, 13 of which were defensive, and he used those to run in transition and hit the paint early. Those paint touches were vital breaths of life against the Lakers’ gigantic defense. While Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet struggled to create and finish their own looks, Lowry was the only Raptor who could consistently create for himself and others. He used the threat of his jumper as a runway into the paint, and he’d draw double-teams, kick the ball to the perimeter, and let Toronto’s PhD-level read-and-relocate offense take care of the rest.

It got even more cerebral from there. Lowry used his screening — among the best in the league at the point guard spot — to free Siakam. That action in particular has been an important, if rare, element of Toronto’s clutch offense.

At times, Lowry created advantages that no other player in the league would even consider, let alone attempt to recreate. Here Lowry blocked out Anthony Davis from hitting the defensive glass, and when Lowry and Davis both hit the floor, Lowry held him there so that Davis couldn’t get back in transition. That Lowry also toppled in front of Dwight Howard, denying him a path to get back, meant that VanVleet faced no rim protection at the other end, resulting in an easy lay-in. To complete the circle, Lowry then boxed Davis in on the other end, forcing a Lakers’ turnover when they tried to capitalize on the seeming mismatch on the offense end.

The above play doesn’t result in any number beside Lowry’s name in the box score, but it was a sandpaper reminder of how Lowry wins. Lowry is somehow never at a disadvantage.

Lowry wins on the offensive end in every way possible, whether driving, screening, shooting, passing, or even falling down at the right time in the right place. Every motion, every inch is intended for advantage. Lowry is the sporting embodiment of the hardboiled detective; every action is injected with purpose. And Toronto has built the roster to capitalize on those advantages. Lowry wrote his own language, but Toronto’s every player is fluent in Lowry’s unique brand of winning. That self-reinforcing brand of basketball was on show against the Lakers.

Of course, Lowry was sometimes more brute than brain. At times he got it done in the most direct way; Lowry finished the Lakers with the go-gettin’-est, gunslingin’-est shot possible.

Toronto’s win over Los Angeles was, according to Eric Koreen of the Athletic, in fact the team’s first ever game in the Saturday night national TV slot. It’s no wonder that, in such a game, when Lowry’s 33 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 assists almost equaled James and Davis’s combined 34 points, 16 rebounds, and 8 assists, the Raptors are now recognized by casual viewers and ESPN analysts as a darkhorse championship contender. Of course, the Raptors should have earned that recognition long before. But regardless of when the general NBA zeitgeist acknowledged Toronto’s ability, Lowry remains the root of the team’s ability, the lodestone holding up the bridge. Everything he does on the court is designed to impact winning. There is no wasted motion, no purposeless word. That’s been true of him for a long time. But it’s worth remembering now, especially as Lowry handily dispatched LeBron James in clutch time, and as the Raptors inch towards  the playoffs. This team is and has always been a possible threat to defend its championship.

Lowry and his hardboiled brand of winning is the single biggest reason why.

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