Dave Feschuk: Raptors remake gives Kyle Lowry his best shot at NBA playoff success
|Toronto Star 11 Apr 2019 at 18:39|
Before he began his laid-back pre-playoff press conference on Thursday, Kyle Lowry, the Raptors’ resident golf fanatic, glimpsed a major championship on the press-room TV and engaged in some obligatory Masters talk.
Yes, the $32-million U.S. point guard has played some of the world’s finest tracks. But no, he’s never played Augusta National (although he’d happily accept your invitation).
After falling short of post-season expectations with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors traded DeRozan to the Spurs. (Michael Reaves / GETTY IMAGES file photo)
So who will he be pulling for to wear the green jacket on Sunday?
“Whoever wins,” Lowry said.
Whoever wins. It’s a front-runner’s mentality that befits the culture of the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors. Sentiment’s great. Having favourites is nice. But there came a time in the evolution of Toronto’s NBA franchise — and historians might pinpoint team president Masai Ujiri’s volcanic reaction to last year’s second consecutive playoff sweep at the hands of LeBron James — when attachments of community legacy and homegrown history became suddenly less cherished.
“Whoever wins” became Toronto’s mantra. And so the likes of DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, for all their endearing qualities and Toronto-moulded pedigree, were used as chips in the acquisition of players with actual track records of world-class success.
And so, here we are. A little less than nine months from DeRozan’s shipment to San Antonio bringing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Toronto, and a little more than two months since Valanciunas was jettisoned to Memphis in the package that returned Marc Gasol, Lowry and the Raptors find themselves preparing for the club’s most promising post-season run ever. It’s Toronto’s sixth straight playoff berth. But to use a phrase possibly trademarked by the folks in Augusta, the Raptors are hoping it starts a franchise tradition unlike any other.
To put it another way: goodbye to modest ambition. And goodbye to getting run over by LeBron, who’s out of the post-season picture for the first time in 13 years.
The clear goal, beginning with Saturday’s first-round opener against the Orlando Magic at Scotiabank Arena, is a franchise-first NBA final, or maybe an out-of-left-field championship ring should the superior teams in the Western Conference helpfully grind each other into a pre-final pulp. And one of the beautiful things about the impending run goes like this: Lowry, after being proven perennially incapable of carrying a championship contender, suddenly isn’t required to do such heavy lifting.
“I think his natural instincts are to play tough and lead. Maybe in the past we needed him to do that and also get 20 (points),” Nick Nurse, the first-year head coach and sixth-year staff member, was saying on Thursday. “I think the biggest difference is, he’s going to play tough and lead because that’s who he is, he’s competitive and I think this team can win if he gets four (points) or 34.”
Translation: We all need a boss like Ujiri. Sure, Ujiri traded away his best friend. But for the 33-year-old Lowry, DeRozan’s ouster has meant considerably less responsibility and way more potential glory. Which is not to take away from the fact that Lowry remains essential to Toronto’s hopes. There’s no replacement on the roster for Lowry’s skill set, which is why the status of his occasionally wonky back and ever-sensitive ankles will undoubtedly pop up as storylines so long as Toronto’s run proceeds.
But there’s also a perceptible weight that’s been lifted from Lowry’s shoulders, which ought to help with the health issues.
“I think he’s going into this knowing he’s got to play like an all-star player,” Nurse said. “But I also don’t think he feels the entire weight of having to do everything for us.”
Translation: We all need a backer like Nurse, who’ll explain away our diminishing abilities as a positive trait. We all know Lowry’s not the player he used to be. We all know he hasn’t had 34 points in a playoff game since 2016. In the two playoff runs since, he clearly tempered his aggressiveness to avoid exposing his limitations. And while his efficiency has improved as a result — and while he’s attempting to rewrite his personal narrative by pointing this out — the wins and losses speak louder than Lowry’s pleadings.
There’s no changing history. Lowry repeatedly wilted in the bright lights in a starring role. But at least he’s got a chance to be a sensation as a supporting player. This season, Lowry put up his lowest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) since 2011 — a catch-all stat that illustrates his individual decline. But thanks in part to the presence of Leonard and the emergence of Pascal Siakam, not to mention the arrival of Gasol, Lowry can say his 8.7 assists per game marked a career high.
And hey — as much as Leonard was the focus of Toronto’s load-management strategy — let’s not overlook how Lowry’s mileage has been limited this year, albeit often by injury. He hasn’t played fewer minutes in a season since 2013.
“For me, if they need me to score, I can score. Some nights we needed me to score, some nights we didn’t,” Lowry said. “I think that was just the team, everyone, we had lineups in and out, everything was always different, everything was always up and down and in and out, and we just kind of figured it out.”
As Nurse was saying on Thursday: In spurts, Lowry remains a playmaking savant.
“I still say I’ve never seen any guy who can make five huge plays in a row, steal a ball, hit a pull-up three, go down and take a charge, come down, drive in and throw one in. Change a whole game in, like, 90 seconds sometimes,” said Nurse. “That’s who he is and how he plays, and I expect a good playoff performance from him because I think he’s comfortable with this team, he likes this team, he’s comfortable in his role with this team.”
Why wouldn’t he be comfortable? His teammates have become better at the same moment his skills have diminished and he’s never been paid more — a timely, if unsentimental, development indeed.
“Whoever wins” is the mantra. Lowry and DeRozan proved again and again that they couldn’t. Ujiri wisely brought in pieces that possibly can. Nobody will call you a front-runner if you’ve been cheering for the Raptors all along. Certainly Lowry has never seemed more at ease as Game 1 looms.