It felt like a different Game 1 for Toronto well before tip.
The Raptors have made the first round of the playoffs 12 times in their 25 year history, but have rarely looked ready for the grand stage in their opening game. In fact, just once in their 25 year history to be exact, against the Washington Wizards in 2018.
That win broke a nine-game Game 1 losing streak, but anyone who thought the curse was over was sadly mistaken as it reared its ugly head the very next year and extra salt was rubbed in the wound as Kyle Lowry ended the loss to the Orlando Magic with zero points. It’s hard to fathom that actually happened, especially considering everything that came after.
A story that can’t be told enough times in these parts, the Raptors went on to become NBA champions and Lowry himself vanquished the playoff narrative that had been set against him with a plethora of superlative performances.
In search of a second ring, Lowry has stressed several times now that the Raptors aren’t trying “defend” their title, but rather attack the opportunity they have to get one in 2020. On Monday night, Lowry led from the front in a 134-110 romp against the Brooklyn Nets and showcased the swagger and smarts that have helped make him a champion.
Fred VanVleet was unquestionably the hero of the game for his 30-point, 11-assist effort that included eight 3-pointers and stellar defence on Caris LeVert, but Lowry’s maniacal manner of being all-seeing and ever-present on both ends of the floor left the Nets staring down an ugly defeat less than halfway through the second quarter. Some may look at the box score and point to his 3-for-14 shooting performance as indicative of a poor performance, but that’s the trick with Lowry, the true measures of his performance go far beyond the realm of scoring.
Let’s take a deeper look at how exactly Lowry managed to finish a game-best plus-26 in his 38 minutes on the floor.
LOWRY DEFENDING HARRIS
While VanVleet deserves all the praise in the world for his outstanding work defending LeVert, Lowry picking up the assignment on Joe Harris was also crucial. On the season, Harris averaged 14.5 points on 42.4 percent shooting, but with injuries and COVID-19 based opt-outs significantly impacting the Net’s ability to compete, those numbers have ballooned to 20 points per game while shooting 62 percent from the field overall and 54.1 percent from three through six seeding games in the Orlando bubble.
He’s developed strong chemistry playing in tandem with either LeVert or Jarrett Allen and the Raptors were going to have their work cut out for them to limit him. The Raptors also love defensive challenges, and so it was no surprise to see Lowry make Harris’ life extremely difficult. Per NBA.com’s matchup data, Harris scored 14 points on 12 shots in 29 minutes without a single trip to the line on the court across from Lowry, and right from the get-go, the six-time all-star ensured he was attached to Harris at the hip so he couldn’t even think about getting a shot off.
The Nets ran several plays for Harris coming off screens but none created the freedom he would have been hoping for. Even when Harris was able to receive the ball, Lowry made sure to run him off the line and create off the bounce, keeping with the Raptors’ overall strategy of forcing players into their least comfortable positions. Harris has certainly done well to expand his game beyond just being a three-point threat, but Toronto will live with him beating them off the bounce than the flick of the wrist.
Now, beyond the compilation above, I specifically wanted to highlight a play that showcases the inner workings of Lowry’s brain. In the play below, the easy take away is that Harris gets a wide open look off dribble penetration. Garrett Temple drives by Marc Gasol, the Raptors are always going to protect the paint first and VanVleet helps off the weakside corner. Lowry deters the pass to Harris in that corner by shading over and Temple makes the right read with a pass to Timothy Luwawu-Cabarrot (TLC). Why is Lowry looking to contest TLC instead of ensuring Harris doesn’t get a clean look from the corner? TLC was 4-for-5 from three at that point of the game. In typical Lowry fashion, he still tries to do anything he can to prevent the pass to Harris by trying to kick the ball away. Ideally, OG Anunoby would also recognize the need to rotate and help on that corner look before it’s too late.
TEAM DEFENCE IMPACT
Now, it wouldn’t be a Lowry defensive gem if he wasn’t affecting the entire Raptors team defence in a positive manner. This is the best part of Lowry on that end, the fact that he can have a major primary role of stifling Harris but also still maintain a level of excellence in helping his teammates in any way he can and also ensuring they are rotating and recognizing switches to be in the right place at the right time. In Play 2, you see how quick he is to recognize the need to help on the weakside before drawing a charge, and immediately after, his experience in recognizing that TLC is moving of a dribble hand-off and that opens an opportunity to seek out another offensive foul. In Play 4 (0:48) he once again helps off the corner as Ibaka needs a little extra time recovering to Allen and that takes away the opportunity of what could have been an easy two.
Play 6 (1:21) is Lowry at his finest. The Raptors are getting back in semi transition and as the first man back he directs Pascal Siakam to get on ball on one side of the floor and Anunoby to get over to the weakside corner. He then takes on his responsibility of getting Harris off the three-point line, and having helped Anunoby get to the right spot, OG is able to help on Allen before contesting the three-point attempt. Anunoby’s help to force the ball out of Allen’s hands and the block after is just phenomenal, but Lowry putting in the early work to make sure the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed facilitates that greatness. And finally in the last play, you see Lowry once again shade over from the corner to take away a possible pass to Allen, then gets back out to Tyler Johnson and plays terrific 1-on-1 defence.
Terence Davis got his first taste of Playoff Lowry, and was amazed by the commitment to winning he saw.
“He’s wild like that man,” Davis said. “This is the playoffs. He told us the only thing is to win. That’s the goal. So no matter how much you win by or whatever the circumstance is, just win. And he’s always on the edge, man. That’s Playoff Kyle and that’s my first time actually seeing him in person really how intense he is… It’s everything, man, and it’s a sight to see and it’s exciting to be part of and it’s incredible.”
Offensively, once again, those looking just at his shooting percentages will say he had a poor night as he finished 3-for-14 from the field. The second half was rough from that standpoint alone as Lowry missed all seven of his field goal attempts including four from beyond the arc. But the tone he set early was exactly what you would like to see: getting the first bucket off a nice curl action, finding Siakam early for an easy bucket, getting Marc Gasol involved and making sure to look out for the hot hand in VanVleet.
The looks Lowry received were good, and that should be the main takeaway with regards to his shooting. A perfect 7-for-7 at the free-throw line is always nice to see as well.
Again, with Lowry, the floor for his offensive game is higher than most because of his ability to make everyone around him better. Even on an off-shooting night, Lowry still commands gravity because of what he’s done and who he’s been over the course of his career. So, even when he’s not making shots, he’s creating great looks for everyone around him.
To highlight Lowry’s subtle smarts, watch Play 8 around the 1:03 mark. Lowry has the ball on the right side of the floor but starts moving left and looking towards Anunoby to make the defence believe a pass is coming his way. Anunoby is smart to cut the basket instead of just stand at the 3-point line and this forces the Nets defenders to protect the rim. It opens up just that little extra space for VanVleet on the right, and Lowry makes the pass at the perfect time.
BONUS (x2): PEAK LOWRY
I can’t get enough of the two plays below. In the first one, Lowry starts by shading over to Jarrett Allen in recognition of potential help needed. At this precise moment, TLC tries to engage in a switch on the weakside hoping Lowry won’t notice, but the wily vet has his head on a swivel and calls it out immediately to Anunoby. Lowry then calls another switch to prevent an opportunity for Harris cutting in, then leaves him to contest TLC’s jumper. If that isn’t enough, he grabs the board and throws a quick hit-ahead pass to Davis who then does a fantastic job of attacking and finishing at the rim. Galaxy Brain Lowry at his finest.
For the next play, after getting a taste of VanVleet on the first few possessions, LeVert gets the switch onto Lowry and may have quickly hoped otherwise. Watch as Lowry completely smothers him, causes him to lose his dribble, pressures him at halfcourt and LeVert is ultimately forced to throw up a tough, off-balance runner off the wrong leg. Lowry gets the rebound, quickly pushes down the floor to leave the Nets on their heels and that results in a couple swings to Siakam and a three-pointer.
Going back down the floor, Lowry is once again in complete lockdown mode on Harris, the Raptors defence rotates and swarms perfectly, and then you have to appreciate the decision from Lowry at the end, too. Forced to pick between Temple and Harris, it’s early in the game and it’s a no-brainer that, defensively, an open look for Temple above the break trumps Harris in the corner. He fakes a closeout and the result is a miss.
The Raptors made a statement early and it started with their leader — possibly extra amped after seeing his kids introduce his name in the starting lineup — setting the tone. VanVleet absolutely deserves the majority of the plaudits for his influence on the game, and Siakam will get overly criticized since he’s become the sexy Raptors topic of discussion for the media, but Lowry’s more muted contributions continue to be the reason why he is so underrated, and why Toronto has kept churning out wins during his tenure.