Lowry’s imminent return will boost deep, red-hot Raptors roster

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry goes in for a layup as Orlando Magic guard D.J. Augustin (14), centre Mo Bamba (5) and Terrence Ross (8) look on. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO — Wearing unlaced Timberland’s, baggy sweatpants, a blue hoodie, and a bulky, camouflage Canada Goose jacket — the hoods of both the sweatshirt and coat pulled all the way up and over his head — Kyle Lowry looked like he’d just walked on the Go Train at Erindale, or perhaps off the set of a Freeway video, as he made the rounds at the Toronto Raptors‘ generously-heated practice facility Monday afternoon.

Winter in Toronto. And not Lowry’s first. So the man is prepared come hell or high water, or in this case the early-December snowfall that dropped about five centimetres over the city while Lowry’s Toronto Raptors were busy boat-racing the Utah Jazz for a seventh consecutive win — and ninth in 11 games since Lowry was lost to a fracture in his left thumb.

Things have been going swimmingly of late for the Raptors (15-4), who sit second in the Eastern Conference six weeks into the season. They’re receiving substantial performances from starters all the way down to the end of the bench and playing for the coach of the month beneath a championship banner on a home court they haven’t lost on since June — all of which makes it easy to forget the team has been without its most impactful player for nearly a month.

But that will soon change. Monday marked Lowry’s first practice participation since the injury, a positive and necessary development that signals the imminence of his return to play. The original return date Lowry and the Raptors were targeting has come and gone, and the team is now progressing on a day-to-day basis. He’s officially listed as doubtful for Tuesday’s game against the Miami Heat, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see him back for Thursday’s encounter with the Houston Rockets, or Sunday’s date with the Philadelphia 76ers (in Lowry’s hometown).

If one thing’s certain, it’s that the man has had enough watching. The eighth-year Raptor has been an active, engaged presence on the sidelines throughout his absence, regularly counselling his teammates during timeouts and even sitting with the coaching staff at the end of the bench closest to centre court. Often, it looks like he enjoys the unofficial assistant coach’s role he’s taken on — “looks like” being the operative term.

“I’m tired of that s—,” Lowry said, peering out from beneath his hoods. “I’m ready to play.”

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And when he does, the reverberations will be felt up and down the roster. Lowry will obviously resume his starting and finishing duties on the team, chewing up anywhere from 30 to 40-plus minutes per night. That will push Norman Powell, who’s averaged 31 minutes per game in a starting role since Lowry’s injury, back onto the bench. It’ll also mean less ball-handling and facilitating for Fred VanVleet, who’s been running Toronto’s offence during leverage minutes since Lowry went down.

But Powell will still have his part to play, even as his minutes decrease. If he can find a way to carry over the timely, assertive-yet-shrewd plays he’s made over this stretch, while minimizing the maddening, trying-to-do-too-much ones, he’ll be a real asset to the Raptors off the bench. And VanVleet will return to the combo-guard role he was playing alongside Lowry earlier this season, working more off the ball while still taking his turns running the offence.

“I think Freddy is just a guy that’s going to continue to get better — he’s going to continue to grow,” Lowry said. “I think his level of confidence, his rhythm, is at an all-time high right now. I said that to him [Sunday.] I said, ‘You’re in a groove.’ He’s in a real good groove. Everything he does. His shots are going in. Every shot he takes, everything he does, is just in a nice rhythm and a groove. And now the point for him is to continue it no matter what. And I think he will.”

Lowry’s return will also be felt by rookie Terence Davis, whose minutes doubled — and on some nights tripled — when Toronto’s starting point guard went down. Davis has been nothing short of exceptional since, playing to a team-best 19.0 net rating since Lowry’s injury, while shooting 46 per cent (21-of-46) from beyond the arc.

Davis will still see the floor — particularly if Nurse keeps Lowry on a pitch count in his first few games back, or opts to extend his rotation to nine or even 10 players deep. Remember how much concern there was about Lowry and VanVleet’s workloads earlier this season? Davis’ emergence should alleviate that.

But game flow, foul trouble, opposition matchups and the play of his teammates will impact Davis’ opportunities, too. Just look at Chris Boucher, who filled in admirably during Serge Ibaka’s absence until the back-up centre returned to action Sunday against the Jazz.

Nurse said he wanted to make a point of getting Boucher some run even with Ibaka back in the fold, but didn’t have an opening until late in the fourth quarter Sunday when the game was already decided. Ultimately, the Raptors have an abundance of capable pieces, and only so many minutes per night to award them.

“I wouldn’t throw us in the too-many-players categories too quick. But we certainly developed some guys we can count on,” Nurse said. “I think the reality of the situation is you can’t usually play more than 10. So, the guys that have stepped in and filled in, if it’s not their night that night, then they have to stay ready for the next one. And just always stay ready and on call for when we need them.”

It’s a very good problem to have for Nurse and the Raptors, although the reduction in playing time may be a bit of a difficult reality to stomach for players like Boucher and Davis. But that’s part of being an emerging talent in the league on a championship team.

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Davis remembers Ibaka sitting him down shortly after Lowry’s injury to talk about his expanded role — how important it was for him to seize the opportunity as long as it lasted and prove he could be relied upon in critical moments.

Davis says he needed that talk to help drive home the fact he wasn’t only playing to help himself and his team presently, but in the future. Ibaka says it’s a message he might not have known he needed to deliver earlier in his career.

“After winning a championship, I learned that to win a championship, you need everybody. You need everybody to have confidence to play at a high level,” Ibaka said. “And since I want to win another one, I have to make sure that everybody around me is good. So, I’m going to start with the young fellas.

“I spoke with (Davis) a couple times. Just trying to make him understand that he has a chance to be great here. All he has to do is focus and do all the little things because he has talent. Sometimes, as a young guy, it’s very hard to understand that when you come into a team that has already won something. Even if you have talent, you have to do the little things to give your coach the confidence to put you on the court. So, it’s our job as the vets to talk to them and make sure that they understand that.”

If the Raptors have shown anything over the last month of games played without Ibaka and Lowry, it’s that they have a much deeper team than anyone initially gave them credit for. And that when injuries inevitably occur later in the season, and opportunities are created in turn, there are talented individuals down-roster possessing the moxie and ability to fill in the voids.

For now, Lowry’s imminent return will provide a boost to an already helium-filled team carrying plenty of momentum into a very tough stretch of the schedule. It’ll change the roles of several players, forcing some to do things differently, and others to do more with less. But the biggest impact of all will be what the five-time all-star Lowry brings on the floor.

“I’ma be me, I’ma be me,” Lowry said when asked how he’d assimilate himself into a surging lineup. “I’m going to integrate myself no matter what. I’m going to go out there and be myself. Those guys are playing well. So, I don’t think anything changes. I think I come out there and I do what I do. Score, assist, defence, all the small things. I’m just going to be me. I’m not going to change and be tentative. I’m going to go out there and play basketball.”

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