If you were wondering about Kyle Lowry’s compete level a week removed from a serious-looking injury, my advice: stop. The Raptors this season have been very much powered by DeMar DeRozan’s elite scoring ability (and newfound passing), but make no mistake, Lowry is still the engine that makes them go.
On Friday night, when things got tough against the San Antonio Spurs, there was Lowry to steer the Raptors right again on the way to an 86-83 win. For his part Lowry had 24 points, plus three rebounds and three assists. As the low score suggests, this was a somewhat ragged affair, with large swaths of both teams shooting poorly, and loose balls flying all over the place. But the how of Lowry’s numbers is reason enough to come away excited.
“I thought [Lowry] had some bounce going downhill in the first half,” said coach Dwane Casey, a true enough assessment. Lowry missed only three games after that scary looking fall in Brooklyn on Jan. 8, but in his first game back (in Philly), it was clear he was not all the way back. Lowry shot the ball well against San Antonio — 8-of-16 from the field, 4-of-9 from three — but that downhill description from Casey is apt. Lowry drove to the basket with much more useful abandon tonight, and largely made sure those attempts counted.
Now, part of the reason for Lowry’s drives to the basket may have been because of the Spurs lack of true rim protection — no disrespect to Pau Gasol or LaMarcus Aldridge. The latter has been the Spurs’ best player this season (with Kawhi Leonard battling continuous injury), but he’s not exactly an iron curtain. And wouldn’t you know it, he was outplayed tonight by none other than Jonas Valanciunas, working through his own fantastic run of play.
JV finished the game with 15 points (on 7-of-10 shooting, including 1-of-1 from three), to go with 11 rebounds. But what was most impressive was his defensive effort. Valanciunas stood up to Aldridge’s continued assault from the post, while also playing smart when the Spurs attacked him away from the basket. It’s true the Spurs managed to snag 17 offensive rebounds (there were a lot available considering San Antonio shot 34 percent from the field), but Jonas held LaMarcus to 6-of-25 from the field for 17 points (and 14 rebounds). Following his performance against Andre Drummond on Wednesday, we can officially say Valanciunas has proved his situational worth for Toronto. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now, which he should,” said Casey. “He’s been in the league long enough now to be able to handle all the situations.”
Against the Spurs, those “situations” amount to being able to keep your composure. I don’t mean emotionally, but mentally. The Spurs are a sharp team, and they execute their game plan relentlessly. Given the injuries to three of their more creative players (Kawhi, Rudy Gay, and Manu Ginobili), they were forced to slow things down and ugly it up. They made some runs in the second half to cut the Raptors’ lead to one, but never managed to take control. That’s a credit to Lowry’s intensity — Casey admitted he kept him in too long, and then it looked like he was too slow to bring him back — and some timely shot making from DeMar DeRozan (not to be forgotten with 19 points, seven rebounds, and six assists of his own).
(Lowry did get to put the final exclamation point on the game by hitting a beautiful teardrop shot to drive Toronto’s lead up to eight in the dying seconds. DeRozan had to have been impressed with it.)
If there’s cause for concern with the Raptors right now, it’s the production elsewhere. OG Anunoby has largely disappeared — not withstanding his big night in the face of Golden State desperation, his offense is gone. Serge Ibaka could perhaps use a vacation. There’s a value to having C.J. Miles on the floor, given his shooter’s gravity, but his shot too is vacillating wildly. Then there’s the trio of Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl: productive in the margins, but not always the best when asked to do too much directly. (Norman Powell, meanwhile, remains on his vision quest.) Ironically, the Raptors could use Fred VanVleet back — he suited up, but was given the night off.
I mention all this not because it’s a dire situation. Most teams would be lucky to be sitting on such a capable and likeable group. They still bring many intangibles to the Raptors’ table. But it highlights where Toronto’s situation is right now. Lowry can (and, as appears, will) round into form, DeRozan has been awesome, Valanciunas has been playing some of his absolute best ball. And that’s enough for Toronto to be 31-13, second in the conference, and well on their way to a playoff berth — but what else?
To truly ascend to that Spurs-ian level, that place where the team is always in the competitive conversation, the Raptors need to be able to roll regardless of who’s playing (or who’s playing well). There have been times — many this season, and in this game even — when that’s been the case, and other times when it hasn’t been. Perhaps that’s the true gap between Toronto and San Antonio, a space filled with the confidence to know completely what and how the team will operate.
If nothing else then, it feels like the Raptors are moving in the right direction.