But then came ‘culture reset’ – the notion that for the Raptors to reach even greater heights they would have to get more people involved offensively than Lowry and his partner in crime, DeMar DeRozan.
‘Hero ball’ was out; five-as-one was the new mantra.
But maybe it’s time to reach back into a bag of old tricks.
The situation: The Raptors trail their second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers 2-1 and play Game 4 here on Sunday. Lose that one and history shows Toronto’s chances of winning the series plummet – teams trailing 3-1 advance only about four per cent of the time.
Oh, and it was announced shortly before the Raptors practiced on Saturday that Pascal Siakam was doubtful for Game 4 with a bruised right calf that he may or may not have sustained leg-whipping Sixers center Joel Embiid in Game 3.
And all of this is happening even with Kawhi Leonard playing about as well as playoff basketball can be played.
Remember how things around Raptor-land felt a week ago when Toronto had easily shredded the Sixers in Game 1 for their fifth-straight playoff win?
Things change, but the Raptors are in the familiar position of having their season and the direction of the franchise dictated by a single game.
No one knows the feeling better than Lowry, who has been in Toronto for every moment of the playoff roller-coaster the past six years.
“Big. Big. Huge. We need it. It’s a must win for us,” he said. “We want to win it. We’re going to go out there and be desperate and play as hard as we possibly can to win that game.”
Then an assistant, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was credited with much of what was a successful transformation from so-called ‘iso-ball’ last season – even if their 59-win campaign was ended at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers one more time.
As a head coach, Nurse continued to build an offence that revolved less around Lowry – although having Leonard around often meant playing to his strengths as an isolation scorer. The emergence of Siakam meant less to eat for Lowry as well.
This past season, at age 33, Lowry shot less than he ever has since becoming a full-time Raptors starter and saw his usage rate fall below 20 per cent for the first time in seven seasons in Toronto.
So far this post-season, Lowry’s usage has fallen off even from his regular-season levels. Meanwhile, Leonard’s has risen by about 10 per cent during his incredible run, while Siakam’s usage increased to nearly 26 per cent, up from his regular-season mark of 20 per cent.
It’s time for that to change, regardless of whether Siakam can play on Sunday or not.
Lowry has carved out a reputation as a player who can help win games without taking on a big offensive role, but in case of emergency, break glass.
It’s time for him to break out the hammer.
“I’m going to take what the game gives me, to be honest with you,” Lowry said. “ Be a little bit more aggressive. I might take some shots that I haven’t taken in about a year-and-a-half. Forcing — not forcing, but taking some shots that may be a little bit tougher than they usually are, but I’m gonna play. And that was going to be the mindset no matter if Pascal played or not.”
If you’re a Raptors fan that’s music to your ears.
An aggressive, engaged Lowry looking to score often correlates to playoff success. On Basketball-Reference if you rank Lowry’s top-15 playoff performances by GameScore – a catch-all measure of overall box score performance – the Raptors are 11-4. That’s pretty significant given the Raptors overall playoff record in Lowry’s 56 post-season starts is just a few games over .500. Not surprisingly when Lowry is playing a marginal role — and his 2-of-10 outing in Game 3 was one of his worst playoff performances as a Raptor — Toronto has almost no chance — they are 2-13 in Lowry’s 15 lowest GameScore games.
Lowry’s challenge has been making room for Leonard to thrive and Siakam to shine while not completely taking the foot of the gas of his own offence. Occasionally he’s backed off too far. Game 3 was one of those games, Game 1 against Orlando (when Lowry was 0-of-7 from the floor and scoreless for the game) was another. But he’s shown an ability to rise to the occasion.
In Game 2 against the Magic, Lowry scored 15 of his 22 points in the first half in his strongest game of the post-season so far. In their closeout win over the Magic in Game 5 Lowry scored the Raptors first nine points, sending a message to his teammates that it was time put the series away and move on.
Now it’s up to him to send another message: they can depend on him. He’s going to help Leonard and make sure the Raptors don’t head back to Toronto trailing 3-1 and trying to fight uphill against history.
All he needs to do is be a little more like his old self:
“It shouldn’t take much, I’m a professional. I’ve been a scorer moreso the last bunch of years, the last couple kind of taking it down a little bit with the emergence of the team, the offence, and the way things have changed,” he said. “But just going out there and knowing, I know what I can do. I know I can put the ball in the hole, and going out there with that mindset is going to be huge tomorrow.”
It will be. The Raptors might not need to turn the clock all the way back to hero ball, but they could use a hero. Why not him?