The Raptors have looked a little shaky as they’ve played on into the new year. Tonight, at home at last against the Utah Jazz, this trend looked to continue for a time. But Toronto still employs one Kyle Lowry. And after the final buzzer sounded, with the Raptors up 101-93, that proved to be enough of a difference — again.
“At the end of the day, Kyle’s a winner,” said coach Dwane Casey. “He’s going to do what it takes to win, whether it’s him taking over ... or he gets the ball to the right person.” It’s something most Raptors fans have come to believe, and as if reading our minds, Casey confirmed this belief. “In the fourth quarter, he does what needs to be done to try to help us win.”
It’s true the Raptors started slow — this too has become something of a team trademark. After the first quarter, they were shooting 34.8 precent from the field to Utah’s 63.2. They were outscored 27-18 in the frame, and carved up by Shelvin Mack (of all people). By the end of the first half, Mack would lead all scorers, with Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan’s 12 points apiece pacing the Raptors. Lowry in 19 first half minutes was mostly quiet with five points and two assists.
If the Raps looked particularly discombobulated tonight, it may have been due to the changes in their rotation. Tonight, for the first time, Casey opted to start Lucas Nogueira at power forward — an idea Casey said could change. The Raptors are clearly missing Patrick Patterson as Bebe, and all of his replacements (Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, and Norman Powell) could do little to stop Utah’s massive Derrick Favors-Rudy Gobert front line. (Gobert finished with 15 points and 16 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end.) Even Joe Johnson had his way at times again, finishing with eight points. Only DeMarre Carroll, +18 in a big 39 minutes, could slow him down.
But then the Lowry kill-switch flipped and the Raptors became the aggressors in the third quarter. By the end of the frame, Lowry suddenly had 17 points. And the Raptors, who had fallen behind by as many as 11, were only down two heading into the fourth quarter. And as Lowry goes, so go the Raptors. “[Lowry] picked up his aggressiveness,” said DeMar DeRozan. “He’s the leader of the team. The things he’s able to do with the ball in his hands, just orchestrating us offensively he understands where he’s going to get his shots from. Just being ultra-aggressive.”
So there was Valanciunas finishing the game with 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting, to go with 13 rebounds (including eight on the offensive end). It was JV re-surfacing late for the huge offensive rebound and putback to keep the game out of reach. For his part, DeRozan chipped in 23 points, on a subpar 8-of-23 from the field, while working in seven rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Nogueira even managed to finish a running alley-oop, this after he looked allergic to contact for most of the night. The Raptors were fired up.
That’s the way it is with a player like Lowry leading the charge. One imagines you wouldn’t want to let him down. Casey said afterwards that while he’s not a gambling man, he’d put his money on Lowry to make the right play down the stretch. So there was Lowry, putting in another 16 points in the fourth, finishing with 33 in the game. Lowry shot 10-of-17 from the field, 4-of-8 from three, and 9-of-11 from the line. He added five rebounds and six assists. He put Shelvin Mack, who had four points in the second half after scoring 13 in the first, in his place. Lowry was over everything.
There are a lot of question marks flying around about the Raptors right now, with Paul Millsap trade chatter reaching a fever pitch. The team could very well look different in a month. Or it could be exactly the same. Either way, bet on Lowry to keep playing the way he’s playing. And for the Raptors to keep winning.