Finding Lowry rest in tight East race tough task for Raptors

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were on fire on Wednesday in leading the Raptors to down the Jazz, proving to be a formidable pair in the East.

TORONTO – When the new-look Kyle Lowry came to training camp he weighed 195 pounds and his body fat was about five per cent – exceptional, even for a professional athlete. When the Toronto Raptors paused for the all-star break a couple weeks ago he still weighed 195 pounds and his body fat remained the same.

That is just one reason the Toronto Raptors are confident that Lowry will avoid the swoon in his play that defined his game after the all-star break a year ago and only got worse in the playoffs. He came to camp fitter, faster and stronger and hasn’t wavered through 60 games.

Wednesday night was no exception. The Raptors all-star scored 32 points on 20 shots, while adding five assists in leading Toronto to a 104-94 win over the Utah Jazz. He got lots of help from fellow all-star DeMar DeRozan who had 31 points on 15 shots. Their 63 combined points was the most they’ve ever scored in one game.

The win improved the Raptors record to 40-19 – the fastest 40 wins in franchise history – and kept Toronto just two games behind the Eastern Conference leading Cleveland Cavaliers with their next six games at home, where the Raptors have won a franchise-record 11 straight.

Lowry looked sharp. He had jump. He looked like he’d benefitted from the day of rest he was given on Sunday night when he didn’t play against the Detroit Pistons.

“[The time off] made me a little bit fresher,” he said. “You have to make sure your body is right and your mental is right. It’s a long season, it’s a grind and we put our bodies through a lot. We get paid really good money to do it so the resting thing isn’t too popular out there, but at the end of the day we want to put out the best product possible.”

For the Raptors that means having Lowry at his best. They don’t want to take any chances with their indisputable engine. They want to find some downtime for him as the season heads into the stretch run. They want to cut his minutes from the 37 per game he’s averaged so far this year, which is third in the NBA.

But every minute Lowry isn’t playing is a minute that the Raptors are a little more vulnerable and it was never more evident than Sunday night. Lowry’s absence tipped over the first domino in head coach Dwane Casey’s rotation. Cory Joseph started and his hyper-aggressive defensive style – perfect in his role coming off the bench – cost him two early fouls. That meant that rookie Delon Wright ended up playing starter’s minutes and the Pistons attacked him at will.

“Delon’s got to work on his defence, that was his biggest issue,” said Casey. “That was the start of a lot of our problems, our guards not getting into the ball at the point of attack and then getting picked off and now it’s a chain reaction.”

The Pistons shot 57.7 per cent from the floor; the game was over after three quarters.

Toronto Raptors guard Delon Wright looks to pass the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Toronto Raptors guard Delon Wright looks to pass the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Toronto gathers all kinds of biometric data on its players. The club has a highly-regarded sports science department, but the decision to sit out Lowry was made by feel.

“I asked him in the morning and he said he was a little sore but he could go and I said, ‘No, if you’re sore I’m going to hold you out,’” said Casey. “‘There’s no use putting you out there sore, wearing you down.’”

In a way, the need to find ways to rest Lowry was proven by what happened when he missed his first game of the season. Without Lowry on the floor, everything fell apart. But the Raptors knew that might happen.

A year ago Lowry was in the midst of a three-game hiatus to heal various aches and pains. It didn’t work. He came back for seven games and then missed ten (he played part of one in that stretch) with an unspecified back or hamstring problem and the Raptors were on their way to floundering to what ended up being a 10-20 finish, their sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards in the playoffs included.

This year Lowry is showing no signs of slowing down, but the need to be pre-emptive is understood by all.

“For me, you have to rest,” said Lowry, who played 43 minutes last Friday in his career-best performance against the Cavaliers, including all 24 of the second half. “You can push your body to a certain level, but you have to have time to recover. I pushed myself to the point where I needed to take two days off and enjoy the weekend sometimes. From Monday to Friday it was hard work, but at the end of the day I had to recuperate, recover, take care of my body and do the right things so I can push hard the next week.”

The challenge for Casey is to find ways to rest Lowry without costing the Raptors games in an Eastern Conference race that is tighter than Toronto’s six-game lead over the Miami Heat for home court in the first round of the playoffs might suggest.

One way might be to find a way to trust the likes of Wright for snippets of minutes throughout the regular rotation. Shaving a few minutes from Lowry’s night and a couple from Joseph’s portion could help each player remain a bit fresher while grooming Wright so that he can better handle more responsibility the next time Lowry takes a night off, or even if Joseph – headed for a career-high in minutes played – needs some relief.

The Raptors’ win over Utah proved how beneficial even a few minutes of fresh legs can be at the right time. The game turned in the second quarter when Casey turned to little-used big man Lucas Nogueira with 4:30 left in the first half, the Raptors trailing by six points.

Nogueira ran the floor, waved his long arms on defence and made a couple of nice plays – finishing a fast break with an alley-oop; smartly saving a loose ball to Patrick Patterson, who was fouled and knocked down both his free throws, as part of a 14-5 run with Nogueira on the floor as the Raptors led 52-49 at the half.

“I felt so happy to get in the game and try to change the game a little bit,” said Nogueira who has been active for just 21 of the Raptors’ 59 games, but has shown well in the minutes he’s had. “Coaches always say the young guys have to be ready all the time, it doesn’t matter if you play 30 minutes or 30 seconds you have to do something that changes the game.”

Toronto Raptors centre Lucas Nogueira (92) defends against Utah Jazz guard Shelvin Mack (Nathan Denette/CP)

Toronto Raptors centre Lucas Nogueira (92) defends against Utah Jazz guard Shelvin Mack (Nathan Denette/CP)

Getting minutes from Nogueira, Wright, Norman Powell or newcomer Jason Thompson cold be crucial in making sure the rotation players are able to hit the post-season rested rather than worn.

Rest is the new frontier in the NBA, with more and more recognition that the league’s demanding 82-game schedule, filled with back-to-back games and travel routines that rob players of sleep, hinders athletic performance and increase the risk of injury.

The league has acknowledged it, making an effort to extend the all-star break and reduce the number of games teams play on consecutive nights. but forward thinking teams are even further ahead of the curve, none more than the San Antonio Spurs where Kawhi Leonard in the only player averaging as much as 32 minutes a game. When needed they’ll simply give their aging core complete nights off.

Similarly the Golden State Warriors – often having blowing out teams through three quarters – are able to keep their starters’ minutes below 34 per game.

The Raptors rarely have that luxury. They have one of the best point differentials in the NBA at 4.5 per game, but it seems they achieve it by winning every game by four or five points, rather than sprinkling in the odd legs-saving blowout.

Wednesday’s game against the Jazz was a case in point. It never really felt like the Raptors would lose after the half. Sure they won by 10, but the lead was only four with three minutes left.

Lowry and DeRozan had enough in the tank to steer the Raptors home safely. The challenge as the season heads into its final quarter is to make sure those reserves of energy are full for when the Raptors will need them most.