It used to be that you knew a Kyle Lowry Eff You Game™ when you saw it. Typically it would involve a line looking something like 35-ish/6-ish/6-ish with a handful-plus of made threes; a fourth-quarter explosion was a necessity, as were the tears of a fan base probably located in either Boston or Utah.
On the surface, Lowry’s 15-point, three-rebound, nine-assist night against the Wolves Tuesday would seem inconspicuous, a similarly positive if humdrum contribution to winning as has been routine during a year in which the Raptors’ main imperative as been to protect Lowry from himself.
Despite what the box score might suggest though, Lowry was anything but reserved against Minnesota. While he didn’t bomb threes or rack up steals or expose some opposing point guard as a worthless fraud, Lowry’s handiwork was every bit as impressive and utterly necessary to the Raptors’ 34th win of the year as it is in games where he goes the hell off.
Electricity flows from all of Lowry’s appendages when he’s having a signature outing; the wattage amplifies as his Feeling Himself meter ticks up.
Lowry’s first sparks on Tuesday night flew in the closing minutes of what was a raggedy ass opening half for Toronto. Standing in for the Raptors’ usually sound perimeter defenders were the specters of Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez, lingering in the same place John Wall murdered them in 2015. Mid-rangers and lay-ups pounded the Raptors into submission. For a while it looked like the game would forever be known as The Gorgui Dieng Event.
Lowry, mostly hushed in the early going, offered a counter argument to those who think momentum is a mythical presence in sports. With a drive-and-kick dime to Jonas Valanciunas, a charge taken against Jeff Teague and a contested three drained with a few seconds left on the clock, Lowry helped rope the Wolves into a more manageable striking distance, and laid the groundwork for Toronto’s second half plan of attack.
“We just wanted to play a little bit faster, keep the pace up,” said Lowry of how the Raptors eventually pushed past the Wolves “You know we cut it to six and you know, we finished the second quarter with a little bit more pace and I think that’s what kind of helped us tonight.”
Part of the Raptors’ Kyledlife preservation initiative this season has required Lowry to suppress his own instincts. Hanging out more off the ball and limiting the pounding he takes on drives to the rim have helped keep him (mostly) healthy, but have also made him more perimeter-bound than he’s ever been. The hope is that once the leverage heightens, Lowry will give in to his urge to throw himself in harms way once again, unlocking that which makes him so damned good in the process.
Effectively reckless Lowry made an appearance to open the third, slicing through two large men — Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns — for a heavily defended transition lay-up and subsequently taking a charge against one of those large men, Gibson, who has to be a bottom-10 player you’d want barrelling into your sternum.
A tipped offensive board to keep a possession alive for a score, an some synergy with Jonas Valanciunas set the stage for a second half in which the Raptors thoroughly outplayed Minnesota.
[Sidebar on Lowry’s vastly improved connection with Jonas: five of Lowry’s nine assists were delivered to the hands of JV on Tuesday, an extreme result that highlights an important trend being established this year between the two. Per NBA.com’s tracking data, Lowry is finding Valanciunas with 9.8 passes per game this season — good for 45 percent of all balls being thrown the big man’s way. Those figures are up from just 7.1 and 33.2 percent in 2016-17. The scenarios in which Lowry’s found Jonas have been more favourable this year, too. JV’s at long last getting more pick-and-roll touches (3.0 per game up from 2.4 last year) and fewer lazily concocted, obligatory post ups (2.1 per game this year down from 2.8). Not only are touches on the dive inherently more efficient than JV’s old go-to, they’re more aligned with the free-flowing philosophy the Raptors are trying to install this year. Lowry and JV being on court pals is good.]
Anyway, back to Lowry being in the zone where he’s mean and angry and willing the Raptors to victory.
Toronto’s crunch time shortcomings have been the hot button issue du jour for the last sevens jours or so. Lowry did not take a single shot with the game in the balance against the Wolves. He also might have been the team’s best player in its most promising closing stretch in weeks.
It began with what he did against poor Andrew Wiggins on defense. Friend of the site Blake Murphy rightly pointed out the pronounced size mismatch the Raptors would be up against with both Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry on the floor against Minnesota’s pair of enormous wings.
VanVleet's been good tonight but I'm not sure you can close 2-PG if Wiggins returns. DeRozan doing a nice job on Butler, but it leaves Wiggins on a small. I'm fine with it if Crawford closes.— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 31, 2018
That statement, of course, fails to account for the fact that Lowry is capable of defending like a beefy 6’9 forward if he wants. Why not roll with two guards when one of them can deny the post like this:
On Wiggins’ next trip down, Lowry did the courtesy of allowing him to receive the ball on the block. Lowry forced a miss.
Toronto’s late game defense hasn’t been particularly problematic. Lowry’s ability to play up to Wiggins’ stature did make it feasible for the Raptors to have their most optimal offensive unit on the court, though. With Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Valanciunas on the court, Toronto was able to workshop some things and broaden its crunch time imagination.
Most of the post-game praise was directed towards VanVleet’s assist to a cutting DeRozan that put the Raptors up 105-101 — and rightfully so; It was a simple yet refreshing jolt to the stagnant and predictable sets that have dominated the last few minutes of recent contests. Lowry’s near set up on the previous possession, however, was equally encouraging for those looking for more crunch time verve.
“Just keep moving, a little bit longer, a little bit longer, and let the ball find who it’s gonna find and it did,” said Dwane Casey of what he’s hoping to see from the Raptors late in games. “And I tell guys all the time if you execute, move and execute your play the ball will find the right person.”
Though that Lowry-engineered sequence didn’t produce points, it does provide an example of why Lowry should be more involved in the offense when games are on the line. As good as DeRozan has been this season, Lowry remains Toronto’s engine of creativity. And while he may have ceded the task of taking and making game-clinching step-backs to DeMar this season, it’s a waste of resources to not have him involved in as many high-tension moments as possible.
For Toronto, this entire season has been about striking balance — between chasing wins and developing youth, between embracing a new offense while maintaining the good elements of the old, and between having Lowry play at full tilt or with a resting pulse.
Through all the give and take, Lowry’s role within the team has been altered the most. But between his inclusive play making, entertaining-as-shit defense and sporadic bursts of offensive flash, Tuesday’s game showed that peak Kyle Lowry is still burgeoning behind the seat belt straps he’s been latched behind this year.
As the Wolves can attest after playing him twice in 10 days, Kyle Lowry Eff You Game’s™ still very much exist.