TORONTO — It was less than four minutes in and Kyle Lowry was peeling himself off the Air Canada Centre floor, holding the sore right elbow he would eventually have fluid drained from after the final whistle, and scowling at the officials after getting bodied by a couple members of the Oklahoma City Thunder. That was Monday night’s game in a nutshell.
The Thunder brought a dose of physicality that Lowry’s Raptors had little answer for right from tip-off, grabbing two offensive rebounds in the game’s first 30 seconds and outmuscling their individual match-ups at every opportunity on their way to a 119-100 victory. Sure, this is how the Thunder play generally, and a primary reason why they have 52 wins in the NBA’s tougher conference. But it was clear early on that bullying the Raptors was in the game plan — and that it was working incredibly well.
“I thought we let frustration on the offensive end set in. We didn’t end with physicality on that end and then it carried over to the defensive end during the second quarter,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “Tonight is a learning experience that tells us how hard we have to compete with force on both ends of the floor, for a longer period of time.”
The Thunder took every opportunity they could to throw a hip or elbow into Raptors when they had the ball, and sometimes even when they didn’t. At one point late in the first quarter, Thunder forward Kyle Singler simply stiff-armed Bismack Biyombo as he set a screen, shoving the Raptors centre about a foot backwards.
Casey implored his team to respond to the Thunder’s roughhousing throughout the night—he got all over the officials as well, who weren’t doing the Raptors any favours, picking up a technical foul late in the second quarter—and said after the game that his team simply didn’t rise to the physical challenge.
"Meet them physically. Meet their physical force with your physical force. When somebody’s pushing you under the basket legally, hit them first before they hit you," Casey said, when asked to describe the response he wanted to see. "We were reacting instead of being the actor in those situations. And we were late on a lot of those things."
The Raptors obviously don’t lack for size or strength, with Jonas Valanciunas and Biyombo both at their best when playing physically under the basket, and Lowry one of the pluckiest guards in basketball. But it’s hard to bring that kind of piss and vinegar every single night for 82 games, especially for a player like Lowry who’s been asked to do so much this season (he’s averaging 37.2 minutes per game, second in the NBA) and is showing the effects.
Lowry shot 4-of-14 Monday night, and 4-of-8 from the free throw line. Over his last four games he’s shooting just 26 per cent from the field (16-of-61), and 59 per cent from the charity stripe (20-of-34), which is such a crucial, must-have part of his game.
"There’s some concern," Casey said of Lowry’s struggles, which can be attributed directly to the guard’s nagging elbow injury. "There’s reasons why his shooting is the way it is."
After Monday night’s game, Lowry met the media in front of his locker with his arm heavily wrapped post-draining. He said he’d received treatment on it earlier in the season, which didn’t work for long, and that the Raptors tried to give it rest last week with a night off in Boston, which didn’t work at all.
"It just gets you when you can’t extend your elbow and your arm the complete way," Lowry said. "It’s definitely something I don’t want to play with and I don’t like playing with. But at this time of year, you just play through it."
So on nights like this, when Lowry’s limited like he is, and the opposition are bringing all kinds of heat, the rest of the Raptors have to find a way to respond. Obviously, against an uber-aggressive team like the Thunder ("You try to match their intensity," DeMar DeRozan said, "but once those guys get going, it’s tough to slow them down.") it’s never going to be easy.
But this is the style of play that the best teams in the league will bring at the Raptors, especially after it’s been proven to be so effective. And the Raptors are entering a stretch where they’re going to be seeing an awful lot of those best teams.
Toronto’s next six games are all against playoff clubs, including two against the surging Atlanta Hawks and one against the perennially dangerous San Antonio Spurs. And after three in four nights against the dregs of the Eastern Conference to finish the season, the Raptors will be off to the playoffs, where they’ll exclusively meet teams that know what works best against them.
Casey will yell and yell, about physicality and being aggressive and matching the opposition’s combativeness. And the Raptors, one way or another, will show if they’re up to the task.
"We talk about it all the time. Everybody gets nauseated when I talk about how you’ve gotta play with force," Casey said. "But that’s where you have to play with force—against the elite teams. We did it in spurts tonight, but then the frustration set in and took us back down. We’ve got to be more consistent with our approach and playing that way."