Lowry carrying heavy burden for Raptors

Former coach Butch Carter tells Tim & Sid why the Raptors are struggling to use Kyle Lowry's and Jonas Valanciunas' strengths properly down the stretch.

So Brandon Jennings and Detroit Pistons assistant coach Tim Hardaway had a discussion the other day. Current point guard and former point guard.

“He was saying that if you look at all the teams that are on top with great records, they all have point guards who are on attack – the John Walls … the Jeff Teagues … the Steph Currys … Kyle Lowry,” Jennings said Monday night. “All the guys are on attack right now. So you have to keep bringing it every night …”

He paused.

“Suck it up …”

Another pause.

“There’s a load of point guards out here,” Jennings concluded, shaking his head ruefully.

The 25-year-old Jennings has the phrase “Young Money” tattooed across his back and as the Toronto Raptors found out, it’s not false advertising. Truth is, the absence of DeMar DeRozan was bound to catch up with the Raptors and Monday was the night it all settled in: for the first time in 38 games at the Air Canada Centre, the Raptors were beaten in a game in which they’d led after three quarters.

Lowry, who should be going to the All-Star Game, finished the night with 12 assists but only managed 10 points, going 3-for-12 from the field. He criticized himself later for not being aggressive enough, but considering head coach Dwane Casey acknowledged before the game that the Raptors wanted to “get Kyle off the ball a little bit … not have him chasing around on screens,” could it be that Lowry is running down a bit?

That’s perhaps being a little dramatic, but at the very least the Raptors were at times hiding Lowry defensively. That may not be surprising, since as colleague Michael Grange noted last week the absence of DeRozan has had an impact on the team’s defence as well as its offence. Without him, the Raptors tend to be more free-flowing — “random,” in Casey’s words — and have morphed into a team that takes fewer free throws and more 3-point shots per game, which means the game stops less and forces the expenditure of energy to get back defensively.

Jennings scored 34 points and had a pair of steals to go along with 10 assists on Monday, snuffing out the Raptors’ last chance in a 114-111 Pistons win when he brazenly stole the ball. He slammed the ball to the court when the final horn went, then steamed towards the exit — brushing aside Raptors players — before realizing none of his teammates were alongside. “Smart play,” his head coach, Stan Van Gundy, remarked later. “Because if he gets called for a foul it’s not bad — they’re out of timeouts, and the whole thing is they don’t get a chance to shoot a 3.”

The Pistons have awakened since putting Josh Smith on waivers; much as the case when the Raptors tied the can to Rudy Gay last season, the floor suddenly looks open for the Pistons. The spacing makes sense, which leads to efficiency of performance and, perhaps more importantly, process and thought. They are making a mid-season move in the Eastern Conference, and much of it has to do with Jennings. “Him (Van Gundy) holding me accountable to be the leader of this team,” Jennings said, when asked what he thought was the biggest reason for his new-found confidence — a confidence which, as Van Gundy noted, eventually begets patience.

Jennings said that Casey was true to his word: he saw much more of Terrence Ross and James Johnson in this game than he had previously. In fact, Lowry sat out the final minute of the first quarter and the first five and a half minutes of the second quarter, finishing with 33 minutes, a full minute less than his average this season.

Here’s the thing about Lowry, and about the point guard position: there really are very few off-nights in the NBA. The Philadelphia 76ers come to the ACC on Wednesday and that looks like an easy mark — except for Lowry, who is on a frightful run of games against elite point guards. The game will mark the visit of Michael Carter-Williams, one of the up-and-coming elite. Friday? Lowry will welcome Jeff Teague and the Atlanta Hawks to town.

Perhaps Teague and Carter-Williams can wear each other out a bit Tuesday night when the Hawks play the 76ers. Going into that game, Carter-Williams is averaging 14.6 points, 7.5 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game, the only player in the NBA averaging 14 points, seven helpers and six boards. Since 2004-2005, only two other players — LeBron James (six times) and Jason Kidd (once) — have managed to average those numbers in a full season. Teague, meanwhile, has five points/assists double-doubles (three of them 20/10 games) this season.

So even if DeRozan returns, and even if the 76ers have the type of stinker they’re quite capable of laying down, do not think it will be an off-night for Lowry. There’s no such thing in this game any more — not for a point guard.

“Eighty-two games,” Jennings said matter of factly, when asked about the burden placed on a point guard. “Kyle’s been ballin’ since the start of the season and if there’s a little bit of fatigue or whatever kicking in … well, that happens. You know Kyle. Kyle’s tough.”

Lowry has no choice. These days, it’s attack and be attacked.