We’re in crisis mode in Raptors-land as we head into the, uh, third week of the season. Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka are now officially statues (and not the good kind). C.J. Miles has been irradiated by some disease that has stolen his three-point shot. And worst of all, Kyle Lowry, our bulldog champion, does not appear to be himself.
Baby-kissing aside, Lowry hasn’t looked like himself because as it turns out: this season is different! Eric Koreen of the Athletic has a thoughtful piece about all of this — Lowry’s usage is down, he’s still getting used to the offense, the responsibility of looking after his team and himself is a bit of a drag.
But you know what can help cure all of that? You’re not going to believe this: the Chicago Bulls!
That’s right, the former hex-holding Chicago franchise is in Toronto tonight and, somehow, it’s not a moment too soon. It feels like only two weeks ago we were pencilling in schedule losses for every Bulls/Raps game, and now we’re welcoming them into the ACC with open arms.
And that [shades on] is no bull. Now here are tonight’s game details and things to keep an eye on.
Where to Watch:
7:30 p.m. EST
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Chicago - Justin Holiday, Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine (I mean, somebody has to play the 3-spot, right?), Lauri Markkanen, Robin Lopez
Toronto - N-no.... nobody? [a raven caws in the distance]
Chicago - Nikola Mirotic (broken face), Cameron Payne (done in by dance moves), Zach LaVine (dunked too much), David Nwaba (who?)
How Is Lowry Today?
Let’s return first to Koreen’s piece on Lowry. Have a read here. It finds Lowry at a fascinating crossroads, one in which he has to figure out how to be his best self, even as the team demands he do perhaps less that he did before? As pointed out, Lowry is shooting 33 percent from deep, which is poor for him (and as we’ll get to, something the Raps really need to improve). But there’s also this:
That has to do with Lowry’s sinking percentages, sure, but it’s also more than that. Lowry’s usage percentage, at 19.9 per cent, is his lowest since his penultimate year in Houston — seven years ago. (An even share of the offence would mean every player had a 20 per cent usage rating.) As a point of comparison, John Wall’s usage percentage is at 28.9, Mike Conley’s is at 26.8 and Damian Lillard’s is at 30.7. That 2010-11 season was before Lowry’s all-star appearances, before he made an all-NBA team, before he was even considered to be an above-average starting point guard. You can look at this two ways: Lowry is trying to lead the charge to make the Raptors’ offence more egalitarian, or he is struggling to maintain his level while adapting. Both can be true.
This is a fascinating conundrum, one we knew would likely happen as the Raptors figured out how to play more effective and balanced team basketball. The reason why Lowry’s minutes and usage were so high in seasons past was because, well, the team needed him to go all-out as often as he did to put them in the best position to win. Lowry fuelled the starting lineup, he powered the bench, he was the best closer, he was the best shooter, he was the best decision maker, etc.
But now, everyone wants Lowry to take a modest step back, or at least figure out how to assert himself in a different way so that when it comes playoff time, the rest of the Raptors don’t shirk the moment (and Lowry is totally broken down). The team will need the likes of Norman Powell and Delon Wright, to name two, to play big minutes, and they’ll need Lowry there as both leader, teacher, and safety net.
Against the Horri-Bulls tonight, none of this may matter. The Raps have enough talent even without Lowry to ice them (see the season opener). But this, to me, is now the story of the season: watching Lowry figure out how to do it all by not doing as much.
Bobby Portis Will... Play?
According to reports, Bulls forward is scheduled to play in tonight’s game as the team’s backup power forward. If someone told you this, context-free, you’d think it prudent — Markkanen has proven himself to be something special, and he should start. But that’s missing the point.
Portis punched (or fought? or roughhoused?) his own teammate, Nikola Mirotic, so hard that the dude is still on the injured list. Meanwhile Portis... is back. Far be it for me to tell the Bulls their business, but this seems bad. Somehow it feels like Portis should have to sit out the same number of games as Mirotic, or something. The two are in direct competition for minutes for goodness sakes!
This is all to say: let’s see how Portis plays. Will his return be worth the ill-will likely being engendered within the Chicago locker room? Will the Portis-Mirotic relationship ever be healed? Will we, as Raptors fans, ever get over cheering for the downfall of the Bulls?
This should become a new weekly feature on Raptors HQ, as originally invented by our guy Harsh Dave: #CultureWatch. Allow me to explain.
The Raptors are in the midst of an overhaul to their entire offensive system. They have the same key components, but the team is looking to take (and ideally, make) more three pointers, while also assisting on more shots. The passes for passing’s sake are one thing, but what we’re interested in is cold hard buckets. So then, how’s it going?
Uhhh, not great, Bob. While it’s true the Raptors are eighth in the league in 3-point attempts (at 31.3 per game), they are dead last in percentage at 30.5 percent — behind even the sad-ass Bulls — and are in desperate need of someone to hit a deep shot. With Miles looking wilted and Lowry ejected in the debacle against Washington, the Raps managed a mere 5-of-24 from long range. This is not good.
(They did have 17 assists on 37 field goals, which is not bad considering the brick fest going on for most of the game. That the Raptors are middle of the pack (16th) in assists per game while being the worst long-range shooting team is an impressive feat.)
So then, sound the Culture Watch siren. How will the Raptors do tonight? Let’s watch.