Kyle Lowry’s absence having noticeable impact on Raptors’ pace of play

Nick Nurse talks with the media about Kyle Lowry’s lingering injury.

TORONTO — If you watch Kyle Lowry’s game with a keen eye, you’ll pick up on the subtle ways he impacts his team’s pace. It happens after a turnover, or an offensive foul, or an opposition bucket. He collects the ball, gives it to the nearest official, and scurries over to his position for the inbounds pass, often clapping his hands and urging the referee to trigger the action so he can be on his way.

It’s a small thing, but it’s one of many the Raptors have been missing in Lowry’s recent absence, as he’s missed seven of the last eight recovering from a back injury. The Raptors have slowed down considerably over that time. And Sunday, after his team lazily overcame the hapless Chicago Bulls, 95-89, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said he’d certainly noticed it.

“One of my bigger concerns is the pace we’re playing at,” Nurse said. “Listen, the defence is still pretty good. There’s still some pretty good work being done defensively. But when they do score, it’s several bounces of the ball. And that’s not really what we want. We just assume, once they score, forget about it, get it in, and get up the floor with a little bit of juice and energy.”

After using only 95 possessions against a purposefully slow-playing Bull outfit Sunday, the Raptors have now used fewer than 100 possessions in 10 of its last 13 games. This fall, when Toronto was playing its best and cruising to the NBA’s best record, the Raptors used over 100 possessions in 17 of its first 21 games.

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It’s not all on Lowry, but he’s a big part of it. Lowry’s played only once in the last two-and-a-half weeks, logging 31 minutes in a hometown game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 22. Lowry didn’t look his best that night, shooting 6-of-16 from the field while posting a minus-8 in a lopsided Raptors loss.

But that game in Philadelphia also happened to be the Raptors’ quickest of the season, as Toronto used 110 possessions. It was the only time in Toronto’s last eight games that the pace was up over 100. Clearly, Lowry’s presence has a lot to do with the speed his team plays at.

After a flaccid, 14-point effort in the first quarter against Chicago Sunday, Nurse urged his ballhandlers — Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright in particular— to make a concentrated effort to push the ball up the floor quicker. Toronto improved from there, putting up 26, 28, and 27 points in the subsequent three quarters. But it shouldn’t have taken the reminder.

“I thought that we sped the game up enough after the first quarter — just the ball wasn’t bouncing our way. But a lot of it is pace,” VanVleet said. “Whether guys are sluggish, or tired, or banged up a little bit — it happens. We’ve just got to find that jolt of energy to still fly up and down the court.”

As VanVleet runs the Raptors’ first unit in Lowry’s place, and Wright works primarily with the bench, Nurse figures the two are merely taking some time to adjust to being the sole point guard in any given lineup. In the past, they’ve benefitted from having Lowry or even each other to play off of. But now, they have to carry the load as their team’s primary ball-handler.

“Kyle and Fred got a lot of time together — we played them pretty much exclusively late-game last year as a combination, so there’s that missing. And then Fred and Delon played kind of exclusively as a duo together in that second unit,” Nurse said before Sunday’s game. “So, they’re each out of their own position of a little bit of comfort. I think Fred relied on Kyle, and Delon relied on Fred — that let them share things a little bit. Now, it’s a little bit of a different scenario.”

The Raptors have also missed Lowry’s playmaking abilities. In each of the eight games he missed in December, Toronto was held to 21 assists or fewer, an average of 17.9 per night. In 30 games this season with Lowry in the lineup, the Raptors have averaged 25.5 assists per game.

And in turn, without Lowry running and creating, the Raptors have been scoring less, which isn’t conducive to winning basketball games. The Raptors have been held to 106 points or fewer in six of his seven absences, and double-digit scoring in four of them including Sunday.

Would it be too reductive to tie the Raptors recent below average play entirely to Lowry’s absence? Yes, of course. But, so far this season, Toronto’s net rating has been 12.2 with Lowry on the floor, and -5.1 with him off of it. Only Danny Green, who leads the NBA with a 15.1 net rating, has provided a bigger swing.

With the Raptors playing to a team-best 117 offensive rating with its starting point guard on the floor, and a second-worst 101 offensive rating with him off of it, it stands to reason that a healthy and available Lowry would be extremely helpful when it comes to pulling the club out of its current offensive funk.

Kawhi Leonard is undeniably Toronto’s best player and the focal point of its offence. But Lowry’s the catalyst that makes everything work. No one understands that more than Nurse, who has made a point in his first season of NBA head coaching to entrust Lowry with more in-game decision making. Sometimes, Nurse will let Lowry call the team’s plays, trusting his feel for what is and is not working on the floor.

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“When I got the job, I told him, listen, you need to really dig into this thing because I know you know what you’re doing out there and you need to understand how its operating and how you can operate within it,” Nurse said. “I don’t need to be calling plays every time. … I want to know what you’re seeing. You’re going to look over at me sometimes and I’m going to say, you call one, because you’re the one who’s out there.”

Much like there was no way Lowry would miss an opportunity to play at home in Philadelphia, it’s an extremely good bet he’ll be in uniform this Thursday, when the Raptors go to San Antonio for a much-hyped clash with old friend DeMar DeRozan and the Spurs. But will we see Lowry on New Year’s Day, when the Utah Jazz are in town? Tough to say.

Regardless, the Raptors are clearly missing him. In obvious ways, like when he hits a clutch three or engineers a pretty possession. And subtle ones, like when he’s clapping his hands at an official, eager to get the ball and push it up the floor.

“His engine makes things go,” Nurse said. “When it’s really looking good, he’s usually that engine that makes it hum.”

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