Before the Eastern Semifinals began, it was clear that the Toronto Raptors would go as far as Kyle Lowry would take them. They were able to beat an over-achieving Pacers team with Lowry shooting 10-for-50 from beyond 20 feet, mostly thanks to role players (NORM), solid performances from Jonas Valanciunas, and DeMar DeRozan "emptying the clip" in Game 7. This fitting together a puzzle from mismatched pieces was all well and good against Paul George and co., but the consensus was that improvisation definitely wouldn't fly against the Miami Heat.
Two games in, that turned out to be (mostly) right. It was hard to predict Valanciunas being a Lithuanian wrecking crane, which helped the Raptors split a pair of horri-awful home games. In Game 3, though, as both Valanciunas and Hassan Whiteside left with injuries, the series shifted completely. Most impressively, Lowry stepped up immediately to rousing results.
Yes, after 33 points from their best player amid a changed landscape, now is the time to re-evaluate this series. With both Valanciunas and Whiteside out for, it looks like, the rest of the series, the lane will open up for Lowry; if he's bringing all his intangibles and scoring the ball, the ceiling for this team undoubtedly goes up. Everything changes for the Raptors now.
So, let's look at how we got here. How exactly did Lowry get his mojo back in Game 3?
You can start with the first play of the second half. All playoffs, the shot experts have looked at Lowry and said his shot is missing because he's fading to the side, or forcing it up from a difficult angle. In his first attempt of the third quarter, though, Lowry bends his knees, gets all his strength from his lower body, and lobs it up gloriously. Swish.
Three possessions later, off a tremendous double screen from Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson (we'll come back to 2Pat), he sinks another -- knees bent, flick of the wrist.
As it does for so many NBA players, making shots started to feed into other areas. Here's a Lowry-esque play from later in the third quarter (where he had 15 of his 33). Guarded by Goran Dragic, he baits the Slovenian into a silly foul on a long two.
Late in the third, the snowball is becoming a full-on KLOE avalanche. Here, he gets a screen from Bismack Biyombo. In the first two games, Lowry is likely to use the screen and stroll into the lane with no intention of scoring. Here, he sees Dragic playing up, goes away from the screen and blows by the defender. With no Whiteside at the rim, he draws a foul.
This play, and one a few possessions before it where Lowry was fouled but no continuation was given, are important for a few reasons. First, if Whiteside misses extended time in the series, Lowry needs to lead by example and attack the rim relentlessly. Udonis Haslem is aging, Josh McRoberts is not a centre, and Amare Stoudemire has been thrust from the rotation. None of these players present a threat, and the Raptors should be attacking the paint mercilessly. This is something Lowry did, but another certain All-Star did not.
Second, it lit the spark that eventually turned into Erik Spoelstra's decision to bench Dragic for the final six minutes of the game. Throughout the third, Dragic's defense was completely overmatched by Lowry's offense, with this being the best example. In the fourth, Lowry made Dragic look foolish again, poking the ball away effortlessly.
Spoelstra decided to guard Lowry with Josh Richardson instead, which had consequences on the other end of the floor. Without Dragic, the Heat's drive-and-create game was almost entirely left to Dwyane Wade late in the game. The 34-year-old was heroic with 38 points, but with his starting backcourt mate shooting just 5-for-14 and being forced to the bench, that load eventually became too much to carry.
Wade also volunteered his services on the game's biggest possession, guarding Lowry with under a minute left and his team down one. It didn't end well for him.
Great pull up, Wade can't even get hand up. https://t.co/IyO1FDho9U— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 7, 2016
With that shot, all of a sudden the Raptors are two wins away from the Eastern Conference Finals. With the best version of their most important player, and their opponent going forward without their only rim protector, it's hard not to be positive about the Raptors' chances. Kyle Lowry is back, and he's changed the series in the process.
A few other notes from Game 3:
On who "wins" with both Whiteside and Valanciunas out. While it's not ideal to see any injuries, Toronto comes away in better shape with both centres going down. Valanciunas was an important player on the offensive end, but without Whiteside, the lane opens up completely for Lowry and DeRozan to score, create, and draw fouls. They can play their game. The Raptors actually have a backup centre in Biyombo to deter attacking Heat players, while Miami will be forced to roll out the Trifecta of Old, Reformed Power Forwards. That squad, as I mentioned before, are seriously suspect as rim protectors.
Also, the Raptors looked very good with a Patterson-Carroll frontcourt late in Game 3. Expect to see a lot more of that lineup going forward, as Patterson set some great screens to get Lowry moving in space, and Carroll continues to have quietly great games, making phenomenal plays like this, a flying challenge on Joe Johnson.
On the continued struggles of DeMar DeRozan. While Lowry turned back the clock, DeRozan continues to be the main source of frustration for Raptors fans. He was 6-for-17 for 19 points and late in the game, took an ill-advised fadeaway over Haslem that could have cost the Raptors their best game of the postseason. His shot chart from Game 3 was horrid, especially considering that the Heat didn't have a rim protector for more than half of the game.
While it's hard to watch this play out, it's virtually impossible to expect DeRozan's minutes to go down. It will simply be left to blind faith, hoping that DeMar makes better, quicker decisions with his offensive game, and attacks the rim with a bit more gusto. The easy baskets and free throw attempts are there for him, it's just a matter of going to get it.
On those Luis Scola minutes. Another source of frustration. Without Valanciunas, Casey shook the dust off Scola for five minutes at the end of third and start of the fourth quarter. It was catastrophic. Scola missed both his shots, picked up three fouls, and was a -13.
This game flow chart from Popcorn Machine illustrates the pattern of minutes doled out by Dwane Casey, with Toronto's lead falling off a cliff almost the moment Scola stepped on the court.
It also shows, though, that there was another suspect behind this collapse. You could argue Terrence Ross deserves equal fault with Scola, as his second half minutes also line up with Miami's big push. Two boneheaded turnovers on outlet passes were especially critical to keeping the Heat 20-4 run rolling, turning a ten point lead into a comeback situation for Toronto. Norman Powell, anyone?
Hopefully, all this is a learning moment. Powell should see more time and, regardless of when Valanciunas comes back, Scola should not step on the floor. More minutes for Patrick Patterson should be on the table, as his 35 from Saturday night isn't all that taxing. If he needs a spot break, get Jason Thompson out there -- a guy who at least has some athleticism to make energy plays.
Against an aggressive, driving, well-coached team like the Heat, any minutes from Scola are an opportunity to get attacked. In Game 3, that alone almost cost the Raptors a series lead.
What are your thoughts on the series going forward?