When the Raptors get embarrassed in the playoffs, everyone in the core wears it to a certain degree. For the third straight season, Toronto was sent packing at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The resulting narratives have been to be expected. Dwane Casey didn’t adjust enough (he was let go as a result of this). DeMar DeRozan didn’t defend enough. Serge Ibaka didn’t... show up enough.
But to throw Kyle Lowry into this mess of disappointment just isn’t fair. Sure, Lowry didn’t blow teams away on the offensive end — he averaged 17.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 8.5 assists per game in the playoffs — and a skim of a stats website might lead you to false conclusions.
Watching the games, though, Lowry looked as fresh as he’d been for a playoff series since the 2014 Brooklyn series (when he was still grabbing late night McFlurries). In 2015 (Wizards sweep), 2016 (Eastern Conference Finals), and 2017 (Cavaliers sweep), Lowry was injured to some degree, pushing down on the Raptors ceiling. He was healthy this year, busting his ass on both ends, and playing classic KLOE basketball, even as his team shrunk around him. This is the result of a year’s work and strategy — the Raptors’ depth allowed Casey to pare back his minutes and got him to play off-ball more. Lowry was no longer the point guard on every possession, he adjusted his game to dribble less and pass more to speed up the offence.
In so many ways, a great Raptors season turned sour — and we’re still feeling the repercussions of that as the Celtics repeat the Pacers’ success in revealing a flawed Cavaliers team. The blueprint that the team found for Lowry’s success, though, is a pinnacle for the Raptors going forward. Lowry will be a difficult piece to move in any teardown — he’s a near-max point guard on the other side of 30, still early in his contract — but not having him back is inconceivable anyway. He’s still Toronto’s best player, and now they have the plan to keep him strong for 82-plus games.
Beyond the big picture of Lowry’s health, there were plenty of classic macro Lowry moments in this memorable 59-win season. My favourite was from my favourite game (I think I’ve mentioned this in every post-mortem Raptors article), the March 9th win over Houston that snapped a 17-game win streak for the Rockets. Lowry was indomitable, scoring 30 points (7-for-9 from three), adding six assists and three rebounds.
Just in this one game, you see how Lowry had adjusted his game and become comfortable over the course of the season. This is overwhelmingly The Good: that a once temperamental player was able to put his ego in the back seat and help his team win in a different way. The offence ran less possessions with his drives in mind; Lowry was fine with that. In the Houston game, we saw it all manifest — quick passes to get his teammates open, transition three-pointers to catch the opponent off-guard, and tenacious defence to keep the Rockets’ pick and roll honest.
It’s also no coincidence that Lowry was similarly great in the Raptors’ other “most exciting game of the season”, the New Year’s day showdown with Milwaukee. Playing 41 minutes including the overtime, Lowry was 5-for-10 from three and a +11, finishing with 26 points. Sure, it was overshadowed by DeMar DeRozan’s 52 — even in the midst of his teammate’s MVP push, Lowry was still plugging away, grabbing Ws and doing interviews in a Bob’s Burgers hat.
Kyle Lowry is good and likeable, is what I’m saying here.
Looking at the season as a whole, it’s hard to find fault in anything Kyle Lowry did. Sure, his per game production dropped — he averaged 16.2 points instead of 22.4, shot 39.9% from three instead of 41.2%, and got to the free throw line less. That’s just the symptom of a deeper team around Lowry, though, and was just part of the blueprint to keep him healthy for a long playoff push.
That it was cut too short by a LeBron James team that steamrolled the Raptors, emotionally and physically, is the real tragedy here. We could’ve seen Lowry at close to peak, finally nixing the doubters who say his game shrinks in the playoffs. In reality, injuries were a far bigger factor to Lowry’s past struggles than mindset was. He showed this year that the bright lights don’t affect intangibles, as he very nearly helped the Raptors grind out wins over Cleveland in Games 1 and 3 of the second round series.
The bad isn’t Lowry’s negatives, per sé. It’s that we didn’t get a chance to savour the good moments enough.
The Grade: A
As stated earlier, it’s hard to picture a blowup that includes Kyle Lowry skipping town. He is the most impactful player the Raptors have and still nearly immovable from a contract standpoint.
Will Lowry’s game drop off eventually? Surely, but he’s still a guard who started playing full-time minutes relatively late in his career, and the Raptors showed they can game plan to keep him fresh for a full 90-plus game season. That we were able to see the blueprint gets me excited for years to come. The Raptors wouldn’t be who they are with Kyle Lowry and the team would truly miss not having him out there.