TORONTO — Among all the comments made about Kyle Lowry from the Toronto Raptors over the past two days, my favourite was this, from Fred VanVleet on Sunday: “As long as he’s still leading, talking, taking charges, yelling at the refs and scratching and fighting, then he’s doing his job.”
In sum, Lowry was held scoreless on a night when he missed all seven of his shot attempts? No big deal. But, if he was not barking at the officials, then we would know something serious was up. That would be time to panic.
It’s a great observation from VanVleet, in that it gets to what makes Lowry such a key part of the evolution of the Raptors from a lost franchise to one that is reliably among the better teams in the East season after season. One could turn on any random Toronto win over the past five years, and it is bound to include a couple of spots in which Lowry did something important at a decisive moment. And also, he bitches at the refs a lot, and it is a wonder to me that someone hasn’t made T-shirts featuring his bewildered expression, arms outstretched, while asking an official what in the hell just happened. Tell me those wouldn’t sell by the truckload in Toronto and environs.
So, yes, Lowry means a lot to the Raptors. Many of his teammates have said that in various ways over the past 48 hours, backing him up after his Game 1 goose egg, and providing the proper antidote to the anxious who were ready to hand the starting job to VanVleet in his stead.
But the most telling comment came from head coach Nick Nurse on Monday afternoon. When it was pointed out that Lowry has often had some rough shooting nights that still ended with him hitting a couple of key baskets, Nurse agreed. He said that when the Raptors had a late timeout on Saturday night and the game tied at 101, Lowry was still an option.
“When that play did get drawn up, I was considering going to Kyle on one of those, swinging him around there and letting him pull a three(-point attempt),” Nurse said. “Kyle’s a great shooter: great release, great mechanics. I believe every time he lets it go, it’s going in.”
That’s the life of a shooter,” he said. “Sometimes you make some, sometimes you miss some. Hopefully he’ll make some more next game
It was kind of an amazing statement. Lowry had missed all his threes on the night, most of them as wide open as could be on a floor occupied by nine other large humans, and Nurse, a rookie NBA coach in his first-ever playoff game, was thinking about putting the outcome in the hands of his ice-cold point guard? It’s one of those moves that gets a coach called a bold genius when it works and a moron when it doesn’t. The ball ended up in the hands of a wide open Marc Gasol, who just missed, but that Nurse still felt like Lowry was an option says a lot about his faith in his All-Star.
The opposing coach felt the same way. “He played a terrific game,” said Orlando’s Steve Clifford. “Not good, he was terrific. He made eight assists, they were plus-11 when he was on the floor.” He missed his shots, Clifford said. “He’ll make ‘em.”
This is the consensus view. Danny Green gave the obligatory Kyle-does-all-the-little-things observation on Monday, and then said this about his scoreless night: “That’s the life of a shooter,” he said. “Sometimes you make some, sometimes you miss some. Hopefully he’ll make some more next game. Hopefully everybody will make some.”
And yet, as much as the team is confident that Lowry will regain his shooting touch — and there are several years of evidence to prove that one bad night won’t carry over — it is also true that this has been a season of change for his role on the team. Lowry was the leading scorer on the Raptors in their last playoff series, which is, admittedly, as much an indictment of the departed DeMar DeRozan as it is indicative of Lowry as a first option. But if he is the leading scorer at any point this year, then something will have gone horribly wrong. Kawhi Leonard creates much of his own offence, and Gasol and Pascal Siakam are good facilitators themselves. Lowry was second in the NBA in assists per game this season, and yet the offence doesn’t have to run through him as much as it once did. Might he have been pressing in Game 1, trying to make up for past playoff struggles after a regular season in which he was asked to score less and less?
There was a hint of answer to that in something Nurse said about Lowry’s rough night.
“I gotta take some responsibility for this myself, too,” Nurse said. “I thought we had Kyle in a really good place all the last half of the season. He was playing well, feeling good, et cetera. Obviously he wasn’t in a good enough place to impact the game on the scoreboard the other night.”
When he hasn’t been a primary scorer all season, perhaps Lowry was a little out of his comfort zone as the playoffs opened.
Or maybe he just missed shots he normally makes. Lowry, when he met the media on Monday, sat down on a folding chair at the team’s practice facility, and then leaned back on the back legs, propped up against the wall. He looked like a guy who had just scored 35. He said he felt fantastic.
That might even be true. But a couple of made shots would help, too.