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A Tale of Two Stars

After a season's worth of misery on back-to-backs and with most of the Raptor crew sidelined, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam took it upon themselves to thump the ailing Los Angeles Lakers.

17 mins read
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Photo via Raptors Twitter

Sometimes, things just get overcomplicated.

Too many moving parts to one system – just ask any large bureaucracy – obfuscates the overall objective.

That’s been somewhat true for the Toronto Raptors this year.

They have three blooming stars. Each trying to to understand what “usage” means to them. Each discovering it in their own way.

There are growing pains to that in the best of times.

Without a consistently healthy roster, it’s even more difficult to figure out who and what you are. You are often asked to do more than you’re prepared for.

There have been moments when one or two of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Kyle Lowry, and, for a while, Chris Boucher, Gary Trent Jr., and even Malachi Flynn have been called upon to be the guy. The trials of this season have demanded it.

Then, everyone comes back and things get complicated. Hierarchies, roles, and responsibilities are all outta whack.

It’s not an ego thing. There’s just been a lack of synchronicity and experience. Knowing how and when to defer versus taking the initiative, for example, inhibits flow. We saw GTJ come off the bench a few games back and jack, just like he had been doing a few games before as a starter, but now with the Big Dogs back, maybe that’s not his most effective way to contribute.

Disjointedness and stagnation, both on and off the ball, occur.

We’ve seen it time and again. Offensive doldrums. One and dones like a Kentucky Wildcat prospect.

It doesn’t always happen. When things are clicking they are clicckkkking. But when they aren’t, the whole team goes limp.

We saw that in each of the last three fourth quarters against Brooklyn, Denver, and Utah, getting thumped by 16, 12, and 8 respectively in the final period. When the game was on the line and offensive sphincters tightened, cohesion dissipated.

On Sunday night, things were simpler.

No OG. No FVV. No Boucher. No GTJ. No Flynn and no Khem (despite being on the court).

This was about Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry. No one else.

And they didn’t disappoint.

It was Pascal’s turn in the first quarter. A cool seventeen points on 6/11 shooting.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, Pascal’s decision-making as a scorer continues to evolve. You saw that in his shot selection last night. He let the way he chose to score emerge naturally. It always helps when you’re hitting the three-ball early, which he was. But his shots varied by what the defence offered him not by what he wanted to do.

That is who and what a primary scorer is. Not one of scoring volume alone, but one who does so in a variety of ways depending on what lays ahead. So often, we see Pascal stubbornly do the same thing over and over again, with defenders at the ready, forcing him into an errant lay-up or contested shot.

Few in the NBA get whatever they want whenever they want. Most must adapt to the circumstances. Pascal did that as effectively as we’ve ever seen him last night. When he had Anthony Davis in isolation, he opted for quick floaters and spot-up threes. Then, as AD adjusted, Pascal followed with a spin, a bow-to-the-face, and a lay-up. When Markieff Morris checked in, it was an array of relaxed step-backs and jumpers, knowing Pascal had the quickness and length in hand.

Kyle has always understood that part of basketball. It’s a consequence of being less athletically-gifted, shall we say. He gets that, for him to score efficiently, he needs others to score alongside him. Hence, his passing prowess; his offensive repertoire being less extensive than most, he leverages the threat of others to accentuate his own. You’ve seen this throughout his career playing alongside other great (Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan) and very good (Pascal, FVV, and soon-if-not-already OG) scorers. He plays patiently and subserviently waiting for his moments to take the lead. It’s what made Lowry the hottest commodity at the trade deadline  whoopsy daisy, Pelinka  – and one of the best players in the NBA. He recognizes the moments to be the distributor (he had five assists in the first alone) and when to be the go-to (stay tuned).

You saw that patient deference in the first quarter. Even with guys like Stanley Johnson and Malachi Flynn on the floor, Kyle was as willing to hit them with a swing pass or drive and kick as he would OG or FVV. He was whizzing the ball around knowing that to win as an undermanned team, he needed to get less-likely candidates going. This would take the attention off him and off Pascal. In bad times, those plays ended in CLANKS. In others, you saw the team’s collective confidence grow as their fearless leader entrusted them with the ball.

That can be a double-edge sword. A flaw of Kyle’s is his tendency to overshare. The Raptors have lost important games because Kyle remained passive throughout. Relying on his lesser teammates to the bitter end. Not tonight.

In the second quarter, with Pascal only taking two shots, Kyle surged going 4/4 all in the last three minutes of the second quarter. Classsssssic Lowry stuff.

He alternated between pull-up threes and bowls into the lane. His first lay-up off a hesitation, defrauding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with the intimation of another pull-up three. That’s what I mean for Pascal. Scoring is a sedimentary methodology. Each subsequent action built upon the previous one. Letting biases and heuristics and assumptions enrich your physical skills – sometimes, replacing them.

Perhaps, we anticipated a strong showing from Pascal and Kyle. They’re consistent NBA scorers. It was more than we thought, for sure – they scored more than half of the Raptors 72 first-half points – but still, we all fretted over who would step up.

We assumed Birch and Flynn. Nuh uh. Then who?

Well, I’m certain no one anticipated the bench. It’s been flat all season. A big reason why the Raps were in a 3-game slump to begin with.

Tonight, though, maybe with nothing to lose, the bench came in loose, everyone peppering in some corn of contribution.

It looked ugly for a moment in the second, led by Flynn, Khem, and Stanley, when it felt like this was where the Lakers would make their run. Despite the good looks, they started the quarter 3/13. Flynn couldn’t get his jumper going, Stanley finished the game 0/5 (though, he did have some nice flashes of Point-Stanley in the second), and Khem DOINKED all of his typically-can’t-miss floaters – he was even uncharacteristically blocked on a dunk gifted to him by aforementioned Point-Stanley. Their defence, especially, in that 3-2 zone where they looked befuddled, struggled with miscues and improper rotations.

Fortunately for them, the Laker bench was the abhorrentest of them all, scoring only five in the 2nd quarter.

The Toronto Raptors’ bench saviour predominantly came from Mr. Macho Man DeAndre’ Bembry Savage, who swaggers onto the court every time like he’s competing for the Intercontinental Championship Belt. Manager Nick “Nasty” Nurse finally escorted him into the ring in the second quarter after remaining backstage all of the first and immediately made an impact.

Bembry’s best in transition and moving off-ball. He’s an opportunist. A lurker waiting for someone to warm up a BlackJack dealer or fill up a slot machine only to swoop in and rip off a heater or pull a jackpot and leave.

Twice, he watched the Laker defence suck towards a driving Raptor, and then cut baseline for easy lay-ups. He had another weak-side rebound basically doing the same, and a ball-side cut for a clear path to the hoop. He even got to the free throw line four times, bringing back that aggressive slashing behaviour he’d shown earlier in the season.

I, for one, have wondered why Nurse does not use Bembry more as a tertiary playmaker off the bench. He’s similar to Lowry in the sense that he catalyzes other players games by his passing, cutting, and dirty work on both ends. The ball never sticks with Bembry nor is any one spot shadowed by his figure for too long. Tonight, he showed how effective that movement can be with 14 points, 8 boards, and 3 steals.

By the end of the first half, the bench scored more than they had in total each of the last three games. They finished the game with 41, Thank God(s). But this show was solely about Siakam and Lowry – particularly, with the other three starters, Johnson, Flynn, and Birch, having shot an abysmal 1/18.

The contrast of Lowry and Siakam’s dominance was stark considering LeBron and AD combined for 11/27 and six turnovers. Both looked like Princess Leia had just unfrozen them from carbonite. They were slow, hesitant, and cold.

LeBron’s buckets were musclers – using his footwork and muskelley body to bulldoze his way to the hoop – or spot-ups. Credit to Stanley Johnson – who has always claimed to be in LeBron’s head – for pestering LeBron throughout. Whether in man-to-man or the momentary Box-and-One, Stanley was there with the added benefit of LeBron’s leaden feet to cover his over-aggression. There was essentially no threat of explosion from Lebron. He’s admitted the ankle’s an ongoing problem and it was evident. He left the game in the 4th quarter and never returned.

AD, too, lacked violence to his game. He played with nearly the same timidity and passivity as LeBron. He had zero drives; his isolations resulting in post-ups or face-ups ending in jumpshots.

Without Dennis Schröder, there was no one else to run the offence and match the blazing glory of Lowry and Siakam. Kyle Kuzma and Talen Horton-Tucker played well, but only as well as tertiary scorers are expected. There was no one to take the game by the reins with LeBron in the locker room and AD struggling. A victim of that complication I was speaking of early, the Lakers were deferring to rusty AD and LeBron – a necessary process to get ready for the Playoffs. If they had not, the flow of the game may have been different.

For example, it’s seldom I’ll wholeheartedly agree with Leo Rautins, but the one thing that was working extremely well for the Lakers was the ground and pound game down low. Early in the game, Andre Drummond – despite his poor finishing around the rim – was overwhelming Khem Birch. It was one of the few times since Birch’s arrival that his undersized 6’9″ frame at centre was so apparent. The Raptors defence was like an unfortified castle. Their moat filled up with water, but their gate wide open. Once they got past the first line of defence, the Lakers had whatever they wanted in the post.

I even had to slap myself when I started wondering where Baynes was at. But the Lakers went away from it.

I’m not a major Drummond STAN or anything, but he only played nine minutes in the first half and twenty-five in the game. With your two stars struggling and poor three-point shooting, Drummond seemed the meal ticket. There was no answer for his bruising. I would have even just smashed Harrell and Drummond in there and see if they could have pulverized the Raps for a couple minutes. Thankfully, no Raptor pulp occurred.

No. This game was always and only about the two remaining Stars of the Toronto Raptors.

Once it was evident to Nurse that this was Pascal and Kyle’s game, the actions between the two multiplied.

Dribble-hand-offs. Fake dribble-hand-offs. Screen-and-rolls. Inverted screen-and-rolls. Horn actions with Kyle running off and around Siakam or clearing out to let Pascal do damage one-on-one.

It was a joy to watch, the variety of ways the two of them worked off one another so effectively.

There were, of course, the moments, where each just took the game into their own hands.

Both feeling it. Both ripping into the heart of the Lakers defence. Both slinging vital three pointers. Pascal with a dirty crossover step-back on an unenthusiastic AD.

Kyle with an And-One three.

Then Kyle with the bomb.

After bomb.

After bomb.

To keep the game out of reach.

Again, there was little choice for Toronto. This game was to be won by Pascal and Kyle. No one else.

It was that simple.

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