A Raptors game occupying space in the palm of Kyle Lowry’s hand isn’t really a new thing. Exerting control over on court proceedings is kind of his bag. But in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals — a convincing 120-102, series-evening win for the Raptors — Lowry may have taken ownership of the game’s tenor in a personal-best time.
A brilliant off-ball relocation for a three out of a high pick-and-roll with Marc Gasol; a smooth pocket pass to Gasol who missed an easy floater; a corner three in the eye of George Hill that slayed at least a couple ghosts of 2016; a perfect trip to the line; a pacey drive-and-kick to a trailing Gasol for three; a leak-out for a layup off a Danny Green steal; and a 17-foot step back jumper over Nikola Mirotic. For a lot of guys, that would make for a decent half. For Lowry on Tuesday, though, that list detailed less than half a quarter’s work.
In the opening five minutes and 15 seconds of Game 4, the Raptors took and survived Milwaukee’s hardest punch of the night, commandeered the flow of the game back from the grips of the Bucks, and settled into the freestyle offense that’s present in all of Toronto’s best performances. And they did it all without Kawhi Leonard having to lift a finger on offense.
Kyle Lowry is good, folks.
You won’t find a stretch of play more positively influenced by one man. At least not until, like, the late second quarter of the same game, when Lowry guided Toronto to a 10-point lead heading into the half with foul-drawing drive after foul-drawing drive. Oh and then there was that stretch in the first few minutes of the third quarter, when he took a charge from Giannis Antetokounmpo and mixed it up on the offensive glass. Damn, he does this a lot.
The insanity that drives Lowry to leap in front of seven-foot bulldozers is his second-most enviable trait behind his supreme intelligence. Few players are more in tune with the pulse of a game than Toronto’s basketball genius. Tuesday night’s game, in which Kawhi Leonard was clearly laboured with a sore leg, required a more assertive Lowry. He took that information and ran with it, literally.
“We needed it. I think this may be our third game of the playoffs where everyone like kind of stepped up and played and scored and did some things well,” said Lowry, the source of so many of the Raptors’ team-wide contributions on Tuesday. “This is one of the nights that we knew Kawhi was a little bit limited. We had to come out and be aggressive for him. The great thing about having him on your team is he still gets all the attention. We fed off of that — drive, kick, swing. He gets in the lane, kick out. That’s the benefit of having a superstar like him on the team.”
Toronto proved against the Sixers that they can survive, albeit barely, on the back of Kawhi Leonard’s individual efforts, role players be damned. Against the Bucks, with the playoff miles on Leonard’s odometer running up, and an opposing bench that isn’t a unplayable shit heap, Kawhi needs help. Fortunately, Lowry’s been infusing the DNA of these Raptors with an ability to succeed independent of Leonard all season long.
Toronto won 17 of 22 games without Leonard this season. If you recall the very best of those wins — the one in Utah in early November, or the back-to-back schoolings of the Clippers and Warriors on the road in December, to name a few examples — a vision of Kyle Lowry orchestrating Nick Nurse’s ideal read-and-react offense at a breakneck pace comes to mind. The Raptors aren’t a better team with Leonard sidelined, but they were often more vibrant and zippy.
Weaving together the two disparate identities of Toronto’s offense — the brutish Kawhi side and the fast and free half-tied to Lowry — has been Toronto’s season-long task. The Gasol deal helped find a middle ground down the stretch, as the team’s shooting numbers and assist rate both spiked after the addition of the large man who’s good at passes. But Lowry’s always been the guy most capable of dictating the Raptors’ style. When he’s running down an opponent’s throat, Leonard has no choice but to conform to the speed with which his point guard wants to play. An aggressive, shot-searching Lowry naturally creates balance next to Toronto’s probing superstar.
Game 4 represented everything the Raptors can be. At its best this team is a two-headed monster with three dangerous limbs ready to smack you at all times. And the Bucks are playing right into the Raptors’ raised hands.
Having Kawhi Leonard, even a gimpy one who is only awesome and lunch-snatching a mere 80 percent of the time, creates a natural magnet for an opponent’s defensive resources. Milwaukee, to put it frankly, appears to be scared shitless of letting Leonard to do them what he did to the Sixers in the second round. In the effort to stop Kawhi, Milwaukee’s selling out to Black Keys-ian levels.
“Tonight didn’t feel like where we need to be defensively, as good as we need to be,” said Budenholzer after the game. “So just reflecting on the game, I’m not sure a lot of those were necessarily Kawhi Leonard-centric. I think some other guys played well. They got to good spots. They shared the ball. They passed it. They made open shots. They made some high-degree-difficulty shots. So that’s a bad combination. They’re making open looks, and then they’re making tough ones too. We’ll have to look to see how much of it is regarding Leonard, what we’re doing with Leonard.”
My inkling is that the answer Bud will find on film is: lots.
Sure, some of Milwaukee’s porousness in Game 4 could perhaps be tied to a lesser degree of effort by the Bucks’ players, but everything Budenholzer detailed there — the open looks created and made, the secondary guys playing well, the sharing the of ball — all stem from the over-the-top attention being paid to Leonard, and the ability of Lowry and pals to exploit it. Bud’s alluded many times throughout the series to a desire to stick with the heavy-handed approach to Kawhi. Each time he does, I smile. That all-out approach helped Toronto reach offensive equilibrium in Game 4.
Lowry is the wrong guy to expose a weakness against. He’s too relentless and too smart to let a disproportionately weighted defense go unpunished. His braininess feels especially notable in contrast with the guy lining up across from him, Eric Bledsoe.
Bledsoe has none of the feel that Lowry has made a five-time All-Star career out of. Bledsoe’s spells of greatness are chaotic beauty. He’s one of the fastest dudes on the planet, and is the engine of Milwaukee’s transition horror show when he opts in to his speed. But his bursts are intermittent, sometimes non-existent for entire games. Lowry, meanwhile, doesn’t ride the intensity dial. His just stays cranked.
Coming into the series, Milwaukee’s most pronounced advantage was in the depth of its back court. Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, and George Hill are all, on paper, custom built to harass Lowry, and there’s plenty of historical proof of all three doing just that at different points over the last few years. Compounding that perceived mismatch were Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, and Norman Powell, whose unevenness through two rounds left most feeling skeptical about the Raptors’ ability to milk an edge out of the back court. Lowry’s done it, though. He was the best player on the floor in Game 4, and has been the best player in the series, period, once you count out the designated superhumans each team employs. He’s winning the guard battle, and not by a little.
“Malcolm and George have played so well the last few games, I think we felt like maybe trying to get them on the court more,” Budenholzer said when asked about Bledsoe’s shortened 20-minute leash in Game 4. “We’re going to need Bled. Eric’s been great for us, his defense, his ability to attack. We need him to play better. We need the group to play better. But tonight really, all three of those guys — you know, Malcolm, George, and Eric — weren’t as good as we need them to be.”
Right now the Eastern Conference Finals are being played on Lowry’s terms. And there isn’t much on Bledsoe’s post-season CV to suggest he’s going to be able to tip the scales back in a deer-friendly direction. His numbers in this year’s playoffs are virtually identical to the line he posted in the first round last year — you know, the series in which he got punked by Terry Rozier — except he’s banging in threes at a clip nine percentage points worse than last spring. Bledsoe’s playoff performances suggest he’s the playoff under-performer idiots have incorrectly accused Lowry of being for years. Brogdon looked more affected by the Game 3 marathon than anyone on Tuesday night, which makes sense considering he just returned to action at the tail end of the second round. Hill has had both great games and stinkers against the Raptors. Lowry hasn’t had a truly bad game since the opener against Orlando.
With Lowry playing as he has against Milwaukee, dictating every aspect of the game from the pace, to Toronto’s defensive rotations, to which Raptors are getting their touches when, a path to the NBA Finals has revealed itself, even with Kawhi walking around like a pirate after every jump he takes. Lowry won games for the Raptors all season with Leonard completely out of the lineup. With a hobbled Leonard now the target of Milwaukee’s attention, Lowry might be about to go and win the whole damn conference for his team, too.