The Raptors have been enveloped by late-season malaise of meaninglessness over their last few games. With the Eastern Conference standings and playoff picture mostly out of their hands, Toronto was giving off vibes of a team coasting until the return of a certain point guard.
That dude, somewhat surprisingly, made his return on Wednesday against the Pistons. In the process, he spearheaded a furious crunch time comeback and single-handedly reinvigorated the mood around the team.
Kyle Lowry immediately finding his comfort zone on offense was the only thing that stood out from a clunky first half. As DeMar DeRozan timidly dealt with Pistons traps and Serge Ibaka hoisted brick after front-rimming brick, Lowry settled in to his desired style of play. You forget what a bonus it is to have a guy who can create three point looks with no laborious ball movement required when he’s out of the lineup for five weeks.
Lowry played 21 of the opening 24 minutes en route to posting 16 points, two rebounds and three assists on a clean 5-of-11 from the field (2-of-4 from three). His defense — along with the rest of the team’s — was barely existent, however. Having led by as many as 20, Detroit entered the half with a 56-46 lead built on Ish Smith blow-bys (yes, Lowry was a regular culprit) and a steady diet of transition buckets borne out of some inept Raptors offense.
A non-descript, push-and-pull third quarter left the Raptors with a 12-point deficit to overcome in the fourth. On the second night of a back-to-back, during this hardly meaningful time of year, you could have justified flipping over to watch the Blue Jays as they loaded the bases in the ninth inning against Baltimore.
Of course I, being clairvoyant and what not, didn’t give up hope in the face of almost-certain defeat. This is of course the team that leads the NBA in double-digits comebacks we’re talking about.
I bet the Raptors still win this— Raptors HQ (@RaptorsHQ) April 6, 2017
Detroit held on tightly to the lead for the first half of the final frame. With 5:05 remaining and the Raptors within seven following a Lowry bucket and subsequent steal, P.J. Tucker found himself wide open at the top of the arc with a 3-of-3 mark from deep already on his ledger for the night. He missed, and it felt like a self-inflicted dagger wound. Upon the rebound, Detroit called a timeout.
Into the game came DeMar DeRozan, who to that point had hit just two of his 14 field-goal attempts, as he visibly seemed to wrestle with his rediscovered role as the team’s 1A offensive catalyst early. Oddly enough, his urge to pass first — as opposed to launching 20-plus shots as he’s become accustomed to with Lowry out — translated into 10 assists on the night, two of which came in the final five minutes.
DeRozan also converted all-three shots he put up after entering the game, including this late, patented jumper that essentially locked up the Raptors’ 48th win of the season.
Toronto outscored the Pistons 19-9 after the aforementioned Tucker miss and DeRozan substitution.
Despite DeRozan’s late surge, though, Lowry was the most dominant player in this game, as he is wont to do.
Unencumbered by any restrictions, Lowry racked up 42 minutes of game time on Wednesday, finishing with a beautiful, teardrop-inducing line of 27/4/10 with two steals, a charge taken and a 9-of-16 line from the field. His performance was as shocking as it was necessary to a Raptors win. With three games left to regain his defensive foot-speed and establish chemistry with should-be pick-and-pop partner Serge Ibaka, serious optimism about this team’s ceiling come playoff time is not only justified but encouraged.
Speaking of the playoffs — this game, and the goings on around the NBA on Wednesday — finally helped to clear some fog surrounding the Raptors’ post-season plans as well as the Eastern Conference standings.
Cleveland punked Boston at the TD Garden, and now sits one game clear of the Celtics for the one seed with the tiebreaker in hand. Both teams have four games remaining and Boston will have to outperform the Cavs by two games in that time if they hope to claim the one seed. That seems unlikely, but then again predicting anything in this year’s East is foolhardy.
On the Raptors side of things, their magic number for the third-seed is down to three — which means they’ll clinch with any combination of wins and Wizards losses that adds up to three. If Toronto goes a totally realistic 2-1 against Miami, New York and Cleveland, Washington would have to go 5-0 in their remaining schedule to take overtake the third seed and the right to avoid Milwaukee (probably) in round one.
Dwane Casey also hinted more closely at what the Raptors playoff rotation might look like at points in Wednesday’s win. Norman Powell appears to be on the outside looking in, and will likely be joined starting on the 15th by Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright, who both got some run here and there against the Pistons.
The opening stretch of the second quarter provided a glimpse at how the Raptors might look to deploy their most trusted reserves in a playoff situation. In place of the usual “Lowry with four bench guys look,” Casey ran out a Lowry-Joseph-Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka unit that looks delicious on paper. Early returns were poor, but that can mostly be credited to a bizarrely terrible game from Ibaka in which he never looked comfortable or bouncy. It seems as thought Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka, Tucker, Joseph, Valanciunas, Carroll and Patterson will be the eight guys Casey will rely upon most once the real games start — in something close to that order as well. Look for more clues as to what Casey has planned for his first-round opponent as the Raptors perhaps look to tighten the script in the final three games.
What did you think of tonight’s game? What was the most meaningful development outside of Kyle Lowry playing like Kyle Lowry?