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Toronto Raptors take on the Miami Heat.

The Raptors are learning how tough life is without Kyle Lowry

Down 0-2 to Philadelphia in their first round series, it’s time for Siakam and VanVleet to ask themselves: “What would Lowry do?”

Paige Taylor White/Toronto Star via Getty Images

It’s been an entire regular season removed since the GROAT moved on, but the postseason is where the real “life without Kyle Lowry” begins for Toronto Raptors. This is especially true for Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam.

Since the earliest days of their careers, VanVleet and Siakam careers have had Lowry on their side as a training wheel. Old Lowry+bench constantly units featured VanVleet and Siakam, and as the pair got better and better, their roles expanded, culminating in a championship — one won with all three on the floor. The teacher/student relationship was critical to the team’s success.

We got an early glimpse of what life was like without Lowry last season; after an iconic last game against the Los Angeles Lakers, the team and Lowry reached a consensus to shut him down for the season. But the Raptors were in tank mode, and there wasn’t much to glean — until this season. Despite a slow start, by the end of the regular season, things looked promising with VanVleet and Siakam at the helm. If the 2019-20 season was a Lowry-fueled, post-championship victory lap, 2021-22 was a post-Lowry, post-Tampa “we got this” revenge tour.

The postseason, of course, is a different animal. Outside of the original “Champwich” duo, OG Anunoby’s got the next most playoff experience as a Raptor with 21 playoff games heading into the post-season. The next guy is Chris Boucher, a fringe rotation player in the Bubble playoffs. Thaddeus Young actually has the most playoff experience, playing in 51 post-season games before joining the Raptors. However, this is not the Young from even five years ago.

That leaves the burden of leading this team on VanVleet and Siakam’s shoulders. This postseason is their stage to show that they are worthy franchise successors and of the torch that Lowry passed to them. This is their team right now.

But oh boy, as we have seen in the playoffs, life without Lowry is hard.

Statistically, the duo haven’t been bad. Siakam is pretty much playing 20/10/5, while VanVleet, on the other hand, is 20/6 a night. However, that wasn’t enough to prevent the Raptors from getting blown out in the first two games. They are finding out that Lowry’s shoes are awfully big to fill.

The Raptors entered the series as a big underdog, despite winning the season series (3-1) and the 4-5 playoff seeding. The Philadelphia 76ers have the star power in Joel Embiid and James Harden, both players that sit at the top of coach Nick Nurse’s game plan. For the Raptors to just be in a position to win every game, VanVleet and Siakam have to be performing as two of the top three best players on the floor.

If that’s not already a heavy burden, the duo needs to channel their “inner Kyle Lowry” if they are to pull off this upset. That means they need to be a steadying presence to this inexperienced team. They need to lead the charge in showing that stubbornness, the unwillingness to lose that we’re accustomed to seeing from Lowry. We saw that a few times with VanVleet this season, and we need that more than ever over the next few games.

One of the things that makes Lowry great is his gamesmanship involving the referees. Lowry would talk to the refs the whole game to keep them honest, and he will make sure that the Raptors are in a position to get a make-up call more often than not. Perhaps VanVleet is doing that, but the two leaders need to keep the conversation going with the officials the whole game, and put pressure on them to all an even game. A 30-8 free throw advantage in Game 2? Yeah, that ain’t it. You can’t help but imagine Lowry working the refs real hard on making Game 3, at least, a fairly officiated game.

Perhaps Lowry’s most important trait as a leader in his later years with the Raptors was his understanding of what the team needed from him on any given night. We have seen this in the championship run and in the Bubble. The team would need to make stops; he was there to make it happen. The team would need him to score and carry the team; he’ll do it. The team would need him to change the momentum — whether it’s a big shot, an assist, a defensive stop, a hard foul, or taking charge — he’ll make it or die trying.

Lowry’s tenure exemplified the team’s identity — the scrapping, fighting, finding a way to give themselves a chance to win late in the game. Lowry believed in the group and gave his stamp of approval during his lone visit to Toronto.

The team is not talented enough for these two to play “just OK” statistically. We need to see more from Siakam — both offensively and defensively, not just the usual 20/10. Not a quiet 20/10. Otherwise, we’re looking at Raptor Chris Bosh-playoff-type performance where he gets his numbers, but the team won’t be in a position to win for the most part.

VanVleet also needs to do better. He can’t always be going for the home run, and if there’s one thing that we learned from Lowry, getting a high-percentage look — feeding the hot hand or getting a layup or a floater — is better than launching another three-point attempt just to keep the scoring momentum going. VanVleet’s Game Two start was excellent, but his role as a game manager is sometimes what the team needs from him, just like what he showed us in the fourth quarter.

VanVleet and Siakam need to carry on that legacy and channel their “Inner Kyle Lowry.” We need more from the two to elevate their game and the team, no matter what it takes. It doesn’t matter who’s not playing. If they are in doubt in-game, they should ask themselves, “what would Lowry do?”

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