PHILADELPHIA — You’ve probably seen this play a few dozen times by now.
Kawhi Leonard rumbles downhill into the lane and finishes a one-handed dunk over two Philadelphia 76ers defenders before methodically and emotionlessly jogging back toward his team’s basket. You’ve seen it so much for good reason. It’s a highlight emblematic of not only the Toronto Raptors‘ blowout of the 76ers Tuesday night, but of Leonard’s rampaging playoffs in general.
Let’s watch it once more, though. And this time, throw an iso cam on Kyle Lowry, who starts just inside the left elbow before circling in Leonard’s direction.
See that? That’s Lowry digging his feet into the floor against Joel Embiid, a man who has, conservatively, a full foot and 70 pounds on him. That’s Lowry stopping Embiid in his tracks.
And although the 76ers centre has looked simultaneously lost, disinterested, and laden over his last two games while battling at least one and potentially multiple illnesses, he’s still generally been effective enough to impact the game on the defensive end. Amid his team getting absolutely waxed by 36 points on Tuesday, Embiid posted the best defensive rating among Philadelphia starters, as he has in all five games of the series. His offensive struggles notwithstanding, Embiid’s still done a decent job protecting the very rim Leonard’s attacking.
But Lowry’s not letting Embiid impact anything on Leonard’s dunk. That little pick, that momentary impediment he throws in Embiid’s way, gave Leonard the room he needed to create his latest indelible moment. And while Lowry’s effort and guile on the play won’t be recorded in any box score, it was nonetheless essential to his teammate’s success. It’s one of those little winning plays you hear so much about when it comes to Lowry. One of the myriad ways he’s been absolutely critical to Toronto’s wins in Games 4 and 5 of this series.
It’s started early. Lowry’s been noticeably more aggressive in first quarters over the last two games than he was in those prior. In Game 4, he attacked the paint for a lay-up only a minute into the game, and, on Toronto’s very next possession, ran up the floor and drilled a pull-up three only four seconds into the shot clock. In Game 5, he reversed the formula, hitting a quick three for his team’s first points of the night before driving to the rim on Toronto’s next possession and drawing a foul.
This is about as determined of a response as anyone could have hoped for after Lowry vowed to be more assertive in the wake of the Raptors falling behind in this series, two games to one. Lowry had a miserable night in Game 3, finishing minus-28 with only seven points on 2-of-10 shooting, including 0-of-4 from distance. But in the two games since he’s been threatening from the jump.
“I think it’s really important for Kyle,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “We talked about this early in the season — we needed more help from more guys.”
Trying to get Lowry more involved is, of course, not a new dilemma for Nurse. He remembers stressing over the difficulty of generating good looks for Lowry during his days as an assistant coach on Raptors teams of the past. That was when Toronto’s offence flowed through Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — full stop. It was prior to Toronto’s offence becoming so much more dynamic, so much more versatile, due to the additions of Leonard, Danny Green, and Marc Gasol, plus the breakout of Pascal Siakam.
“We were trying like heck to get [Lowry] shots and we couldn’t find him. They were loading up so much to him and blitzing him and doing all kinds of things,” Nurse said. “It’s a little bit different team right now.”
Now, with so many other weapons on the floor, Lowry’s opportunities are bound to be there. He just has to take them. And over the last two games, he hasn’t hesitated. But as Nurse has spent the last 24 hours pondering how he’ll counter Philadelphia’s anticipated attempt to throw the first punch under desperate circumstances in Thursday’s Game 6, he’s also thought about how the 76ers will endeavour to do the same with Lowry.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve got a plan to try to limit his shots at the start tomorrow. They haven’t really had a plan to limit his shooting,” Nurse said. “We’ve needed him to take the opportunities that were there a little bit more. I think he’s done a great job of stretching out their defence. I don’t just mean taking perimeter shots. He’s taking the ball from one side of the floor to the other. He’s taking it vertically downhill and keeping his dribble alive. He’s just being more aggressive, you know?”
You can see it reflected in Lowry’s free-throw attempts, which were up to eight Tuesday night, his highest total of the playoffs. That’s a result of Lowry doing exactly what Nurse is talking about — attacking vertically, driving to the rim, and using his savvy to draw fouls. Lowry drew seven during Game 6, his most since Game 2 of the opening round. That was the second-most on his team — Leonard drew eight — which is impressive bearing in mind Lowry’s usage rate (19.4 per cent) trailed Siakam, Leonard, and even Serge Ibaka on the night.
Considering he shot 5-of-9 and added five assists on the night, when Lowry decided to use a possession, he really made the most of it.
Still, the whims of NBA officiating are prone to fluctuation. What’s a foul in one game might not be in the next. Nurse puts a lot of well-earned trust in Lowry to decipher how a game’s being called, understanding when to pull back on his aggressiveness if he isn’t getting whistles, and when to go at the opposition even more if he is. Tuesday night was certainly the latter.
“I think that’s one of the things we try to keep an eye on,” Nurse said. “We want him to be aggressive and go at those guys, no doubt about it. Throw his shoulder in there and get to the rim and get in the paint and create collapses and all that stuff. But it seems like him going to the line or not goes in waves. Some games they’re calling that play and some games they’re not. So, we’ve got to make sure, and he has to make sure, that he adjusts to the referees either way.”
If anything’s been consistent for Lowry throughout these playoffs, it’s the little stuff. The ball he quickly pushes up the floor after a Philadelphia bucket, trying to catch a disorganized defence before it’s set. The rumbling opponent he stands in front of to draw one of his playoff-leading nine charges. The little grab, little tug, little hip he puts into a defender chasing around one of his teammates, like he did against Embiid on Tuesday, giving Leonard room to create his latest poster.
That stuff seems to always be there. And when Lowry’s layering in a mean, aggressive streak in the early going? When he’s hitting pull-up threes, attacking the rim, drawing fouls? There’s just not a lot the opposition can do.