The Raptors are now a week into life with Kyle Lowry. In that time, fans have seen the full spectrum of performances this team is capable of without its best player.
Against Boston and Portland, DeMar DeRozan's individual ability paired with sound secondary contributions was enough. Toronto scored as if nothing was amiss, and the new additions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker injected energy into what had been a lifeless defense for most of the season.
Concerns have percolated since the news that Lowry was going to undergo surgery broke on Monday. That night, DeRozan's nerves of steel and the Knicks' general ineptitude yielded a narrow 92-91 win. It was ugly, but also looked like a blueprint for how the Raptors could stay afloat with Lowry sidelined: defend your ass off, trust in DeMar, and hope it's enough to get by a sub par opponent.
Wednesday's loss to the Wizards — the first with Lowry out all season — accentuated the blemishes that Lowry often hides with his brilliance. Without its propeller, the bench unit stalled in cataclysmic fashion. Left to dive headlong into a sturdy Wizards defense, DeRozan had his first off game since the All-Star break. The scoreboard indicated a single-digit loss, but it was a beatdown.
Thanks to the league's whacked out scheduling computer, the Raptors get another kick at the can Friday night in D.C. Here's what to watch for as the Raptors move in to Week Two of the post-Lowry chapter.
Tiebreaker, Dream Maker
The playoffs are still too far off for fans to stress over how each game might impact seeding come season's end. Things are fluid. One ill-timed injury or prolonged winning streak can send a team plummeting down or rocketing up the standings over the course of a couple weeks, let alone a month and a half.
That said, tonight's game carries some weight. The winner will lock up the season series, and therefore the tiebreaker in the event both Toronto and Washington finish with equal records. It'll be especially sweet for the Raptors to hold that card in their back pocket, as it'll mean they'll prevail in a tie against both the Wizards and Celtics.
Heading in to Friday the Raptors sit 3.0 games back of Boston for second, and a single game behind tonight's opponent. Holding the tiebreaker essentially shaves a half game off both of those deficits, not to mention the full game they stand to gain with retaliatory a win over Washington. This is on the shortlist of the most crucial games the Raptors will play all year.
Where Have all the Threes Gone?
The last two games have illustrated exactly why Kyle Lowry deserves a max contract, and probably some extra cash under the table from the Raptors this summer. When he's healthy, and a sequence of aesthetically pleasing offense takes place, it's probably a direct result of something Lowry did.
Before he went down, Lowry either took or set up 50.2% of all Raptors three-point attempts per NBA.com. The team converted looks at a top-10 rate, right around 37 percent, with him in the lineup. In Lowry's absence, Toronto is attempting about four threes fewer per game, and knocking them down at a putrid 32 percent clip. What triples do get hoisted tend to be a lot more laborious to create than Lowry's quick-fire pull-ups coming around screens or kick-outs to open shooters. DeMarre Carroll, the team's highest volume shooter after Lowry, didn't even attempt a shot from deep against Washington.
Math is not on the Raptors side right now, and Dwane Casey said after Wednesday's game that he'd need to devise a scheme to better maximize the Raptors' time on the offensive end. Here's hoping one off day was enough to install some new tactics.
Jonas vs. Gortat
It is law: Jonas Valanciunas can never have a good game against Marcin Gortat. Normally it's floor-spacing shooters who give JV fits on defense, not plodders like The Polish Hammer. But Gortat's mix of stingy post defense and impeccable pick-and-roll ability render Jonas unplayable on the regular. It was the Gortat-Beal combo that exposed Valanciunas on Wednesday. Gortat's heavy screens would stun Beal's man, Beal will find open pastures in the midrange, and Valanciunas would be too slow to get in Beal's face to challenge the shot.
On the other end of the floor, despite being telegraphed more than a fair share of designed post looks, Valanciunas couldn't attack with any decisiveness or force. Yes, some of his 3-of-12 shooting line can be chalked up to missed tip-ins (he had seven offensive rebounds), but he also did nothing with the plays in which he was featured. This harkens back to Dwane Casey's comments to Zach Lowe earlier in the season, implying that if Valanciunas doesn't dominate, there's little reason to trust him with heavy minutes.
Since the break he hasn't dominated. He's barely looked adequate. If that doesn't turn around, Serge Ibaka will be unchallenged for the team's closing minutes at centre for the foreseeable future.
Where to Watch: TSN, 7:00pm EST