TORONTO — If, over the course of the last three weeks or so, you had forgotten what the Toronto Raptors have been lacking in the absence of one Kyle Lowry, the unrelentingly pesky guard was kind enough to provide a refresher demonstration shortly after tip-off Sunday night.
Playing for only the second time in his team’s last 11 thanks to a stubborn lower back injury that required a series of pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory injections, Lowry made his mark less than two minutes in, drilling a catch-and-shoot three after a long offensive rebound by Pascal Siakam.
A minute later, he stepped into the lane opposite Indiana Pacers forward Thaddeus Young — a man listed with seven inches and 25 pounds on Lowry — and drew his 14th charge of the season, good for third in the NBA despite all the time Lowry’s missed.
Ball inbounded, off he went, orchestrating a give-and-go with Siakam that resulted in Lowry finishing beneath the basket, but not before hesitating for a perfect moment to draw an and-one from the recovering Victor Oladipo. Three-point play completed, Lowry raced back to the defensive end where he came down with a rebound and, after the Raptors coughed it up, went diving after a loose ball for his first steal of the night.
It’s a lot, isn’t it? But it’s what Lowry provides, and what the Raptors have been missing since his bothersome back forced him out of action in mid-December.
And, with Kawhi Leonard sidelined on the latter-half of one of the toughest back-to-backs a team will encounter, it was exactly what the Raptors needed as they dispatched the rested Indiana Pacers, winners of 13 of 15 coming in, 121-105. Lowry finished with 12 points and eight assists in a nearly 32-minute shift. But he contributed so much more.
“That’s what he does,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “There’s about 32 other things out there you’re not seeing that he’s doing that don’t get recorded on the stat sheet.”
Lowry played all of his seven first-quarter minutes like he was trying to prove a point. He was darting all over the place on the offensive end, pacing around the perimeter off the ball, setting picks to help his teammates get switches, and creeping into the paint after shots, looking for ambush rebounds.
On the defensive end, he was constantly talking, guarding with arms stretched out wide, cheating for steals, trying to push the pace off buckets and turnovers. In the second quarter, he drew another charge, moving into second in the league, only two off the pace. Moments later, he went coast-to-coast in transition off a Pacers miss, sinking a floater from the paint while drawing a foul.
“He’s just the heartbeat of the team,” said Fred VanVleet, who had 12 and 8 of his own. “He’s a leader. Pace, energy, aggressiveness, switching, rebounding, finding guys, making shots — he does it all.”
Unsurprisingly, the Raptors are a much better team with Lowry in the lineup, and not only due to the 14 points and 10 assists he’s averaging per night. It’s all those little things he does. His plus-12.2 net rating on the season is second to only Danny Green, who leads the NBA at plus-14. The Raptors have played plus-9.4 basketball with Lowry on the court this season, and minus-1.8 with him off of it. The machine just hums better.
“It’s just him. You can’t really put it into context,” said Delon Wright, who had 10 points and 6 assists. “He does a good job of bringing energy, pushing the pace. Just doing the little things — taking charges, being scrappy.”
But the Raptors were going to need more than only Lowry to win Sunday. They were going to need a struggling bench unit that had been lost in the wilderness for weeks to manage a dramatic reversal of its play.
Saturday night, the bench contributed only five of Toronto’s 123 points in a determined victory over the then-Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. All four reserves who saw the floor finished with minus’s in the double-figures against Milwaukee, and the group was so unreliable that Nurse was forced to play all five of his starters for 19 minutes or more in the second half.
It was the most ineffective game Toronto’s second unit has had all season, so it would have been hard for them to be any worse Sunday. But with Leonard out, Lowry easing back in, and starters Siakam, Green, and VanVleet having carried enormous workloads the night prior, Nurse needed his reserves to not only play better, but drastically so. Nurse compared the effort he was looking to see from his bench Sunday to the one he got from his starters Saturday following a no-show performance against San Antonio a couple nights prior.
“Our team, the starters anyway, were ready to change their mindset. And they did it,” Nurse said before Sunday’s game. “Now, the bench, they know that. They, immediately after the game last night, were talking amongst themselves, and have been talking today, that they’ve got to step up, man. They’ve got to play better, they’ve got to play harder, they’ve got to play with more passion. They’ve got to bring it.”
Their response? A combined 52-points on 21-of-39 shooting, after going 1-of-15 the night prior. All four of the bench players who were double-digit minuses Saturday finished double-digit plusses Sunday, led by Powell, who scored 23 on 10-of-12 shooting.
“In Milwaukee, the bench production was pretty much non-existent,” Powell said. “So, we talked about it — coming out, setting a tone, bringing the energy, and playing our game. I think we didn’t play our game in Milwaukee. We were playing sped up and in a hurry. And today, we were able to let our defence do the talking for our offence and we were able to get some easy looks off our defence early on.”
Lowry deserves some credit for the turnaround, too, as he spent extended stints in both the first and second half working with the bench unit, trading ball-handling duties with Wright. He was particularly effective in pick-and-rolls with Monroe, who had his best game in weeks.
“I wish I could tell you I was smart enough that that was the plan, but it was just more of managing Kyle’s minutes that he ended up with [the bench],” Nurse said. “But I think that helped them.”
Still, the Raptors were playing for a third time, in a third city, against a third plus-.500 team in four nights. An adrenaline dump had to be coming at some point, and it arrived at the beginning of the third quarter, as the Raptors came out of the dressing room half-asleep and let the Pacers back in the game.
Nurse called a timeout only a minute into the second half, and tore a strip off his team on the bench, standing and yelling at his starters for a good minute before he ever sat down to draw up a play. But matters did not immediately improve on the other side, as the Pacers continued to score and pulled even. That’s when Lowry went to work again.
On consecutive plays, Lowry pulled off his trademark touchdown pass to a sprinting Siakam for easy buckets at the other end, before stripping Young in the paint after a rebound and finding Serge Ibaka for a wide-open three. Lowry made a three of his own on the Raptors’ next trip, and suddenly Toronto’s lead was back up to a dozen as they cruised to victory.
It was a comprehensive effort, as eight Raptors finished with double-digit scoring and 30 of the team’s 44 buckets were assisted. But Lowry was the catalyst for it all. The guy who made the engine hum.
It’s unclear exactly how healthy Lowry is at the moment. In between shifts, he would lay flat on the court in front of the Raptors bench, sometimes propping his legs up on a chair, sometimes wrapped in towels to keep his torso warm. But when he was on the court, there was no mistaking how important he is. And just how much the Raptors missed him.