PHILADELPHIA — As the most critical phase of their season rounds into view the variables the Toronto Raptors need to deal with seems to be growing, not narrowing. Even as the Feb. 7 trade deadline looms their competition seems to be ramping up, locking in.
The Raptors are just hoping, waiting, day-to-day, to know for sure who is going to be in their lineup.
They got some welcome news on Tuesday morning when point guard Kyle Lowry – listed as doubtful on the team’s injury report for tonight’s game here against the Philadelphia 76ers – plopped himself down on a courtside chair before the team’s shootaround at Wells Fargo Center and announced:
It’s not the first time Lowry has surprised his team by deciding to return to action in his hometown – although in this case he’d only missed one game. The last time didn’t work out very well. Lowry had been out four games beginning Dec. 12th dealing with what was listed as a thigh injury, when he put himself in the lineup against the 76ers on Dec. 22nd.
Lowry was largely ineffective (6-of-15 from the floor; 2-of-9 from deep) in a blowout loss and ended up missing the next six games with a back problem. He returned on Jan. 6th and played 12 games largely below his standard – he shot just 30.6 from three over that stretch – and then was held out again on Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers with no previous indication that there was a problem.
Lowry tried to clarify things on Tuesday morning regarding his most recent issue by downplaying it: “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know who listed me as doubtful. I didn’t list myself as doubtful. I never wasn’t planning on playing [against Philadelphia],” he said.
“[On Sunday] I was just making sure. There are times you just want to make sure you are physically right and sometimes it’s the plan to make sure you are right. I could have probably played but it was safer not to play and make sure I’m OK.”
But Lowry’s back will very likely be an on-going concern, it seems safe to assume, for two reasons: One is the obvious – when his back flares up or is even threatening to flare up, he can’t play and the Raptors need him on the floor. The other is that when it does give him problems to the point he has to miss games, it’s a significant setback that extends beyond his return to the floor. Every time his back acts up, Lowry has to shut things down.
I spoke with Lowry recently about it and he said that even this past week he was still trying to find his fitness and his rhythm after his being out six games following his last visit to Philadelphia.
“I couldn’t do anything [while I was out],” he said. “It was a challenge [because] I couldn’t move. So that sucks. It was just keeping it in your mind that you know it’s going to come back at some point. [But] You can’t work out. Can’t do nothing. It’s a tough situation.”
“You lose everything — not everything, but you lose a lot,” he told me. “You lose your strength, you lose your conditioning, you lose your legs, you lose your bounce, you lose all that.”
For those wondering why Lowry has been struggling with his three-point shooting this season it’s probably as complete an explanation as we will likely get.
The fall-off has been steep.
In the past three seasons prior to this one Lowry has evolved into one of the best high-volume, long-range shooters in the NBA. The list of players who have made at least three triples a game while shooting at least 39 per cent from deep is a short one: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson from the Golden State Warriors – almost without argument the two best three-point shooters in NBA history – and Lowry.
There is some good news. His back problems seem to be manageable:
“It’s the same thing [I’ve always had],” he said. “A sore back. No disc problems, no bulging disc, that’s a positive. It’s just the wear and tear that we have as basketball players.”
Lowry puts more wear and tear on his body that most, with his frenetic, floor-burning style. If there’s a charge to taken, he’ll take it. If there’s a loose-ball scrum on the floor, he’ll be in it.
Can he tone that down and still be effective? “I don’t think he can, to be honest,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “I think that’s the way he plays.”
Since returning to the lineup Lowry has been able to keep up with the ‘pre-hab’ routine he’s committed to in order to keep his back feeling strong. Lowry is regularly worked on by Raptors therapists and carries a small duffle bag on the road filled with foam rollers and other items he relies on to keep his 32-year-old body humming.
He’s got every incentive. Lowry has one year and $33.3-million left on his contract after this season and has said in the past he wants to keep playing well after this deal is done. There could easily be a market at that point for a healthy then 34-year-old veteran point guard who shoots 40-per-cent from deep. Less so for a then 13-year veteran with a history of back trouble.
Lowry’s ability to compete and contribute at an all-star level this season and next will also be a huge factor in the Raptors ability to contend this season and beyond, an element that you can only expect Kawhi Leonard to consider when the time comes to decide if he wants to accept the five-year, $240-million deal the Raptors plan to offer him in the off-season.
“I can do everything I need to do to kind of keep it going,” Lowry said. “That’s huge. To be able to do everything – lifting, cardio, Pilates – doing the things that strengthens your body… but I still have to be smart about it. I can’t push, push, push. I still have to be patient. It’s a process. It’s not going to be ‘I’ll be back in shape tomorrow or next week, it’s just an all year type of thing, rest of the season, because, you know it’s long term. You can’t overdo it.”
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse allowed that Lowry’s back problems could be affecting his shooting but said there have been some mechanical flaws that they feel like they’re on top of now also:
“For Kyle in particular, it’s not unlike a hitting slump a little bit,” Nurse said. “We broke some things down, looked at some mechanics. You don’t do a lot of that stuff sometimes but we did and we think we’ve got him on the right track, or he’s got himself back on the right track with that, and I expect him to continue to shoot better.”
Lowry’s improved shooting would be a welcome development. The Raptors (38-16) were at their best early in the season when Lowry was on fire from deep – Toronto started the season 11-1 in part on the strength of Lowry shooting 39 per cent from three and averaging 17 points a game.
Since then Toronto is 27-15 and while Lowry has been shooting just 29 per cent from deep and averaging just 12.7 points a game.
Regardless of what happens at the trade deadline the Raptors need Lowry to reclaim his spot as one of the NBA’s best shooters and to do that they need their veteran point guard’s wonky back to stay healthy tonight and beyond.