TORONTO — Friday night, leaning back at his locker after a dispiriting loss to the Brooklyn Nets, a white towel framing his head like a pharaoh, Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry analyzed his recent play as well as any of us could.
“I don’t have any excuses to make. I’m just not playing well. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “I hold myself to a high standard and the organization holds me to a high standard. And I have to play better. As a leader of this team, I’ve got to figure out how to play a lot better offensively.”
Sunday, during another dispiriting loss, this time 104-99 against the tenacious Milwaukee Bucks, Lowry did not play better offensively. He played worse.
He missed each of the five shots he took, all of them from beyond the arc. He never got to the line. He finished without a point for the first time since 2013. That was 405 games ago. It was the first time in his career he played more than 30 minutes and didn’t score.
“Gotta look at the film — see where they were at,” Lowry said after Sunday’s loss, Toronto’s third in its last four, when asked about his low output. “I don’t know — just couldn’t find any open ones tonight.”
It’s not just tonight. Lowry’s been in an offensive funk for five games now, shooting 19 per cent both from the field (8-of-42) and beyond the arc (6-of-32) over that span. He’s averaging five points per game. The assists are still there (nine per game) and he’s been playing decent defence with a plus-9 over that stretch. But he’s looked like anything but himself when given the opportunity to score.
“We didn’t get anything out of him offensively,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I still thought he played a pretty tough game and did some good things.”
Sure, but eventually scoring will have to be one of them. The bizarre thing about Lowry’s last four games in particular is his reticence to drive to the rim or even try to score from inside the arc. Over that span, 25 of his 28 field goal attempts have come from three-point range. Asked for reasons as to why, no one has a clear answer.
“I was thinking about that tonight,” Lowry said. “I just didn’t get an opportunity — or just didn’t do it, rather. I have to be a little bit more assertive going inside the arc. I definitely do. That’s a good point.”
“I think he’s driven in there and kicked it out to some open guys a lot because they’re really giving him a lot of attention,” said Nurse. “But somehow we’ve got to get him to bulldoze his way in there and get to the rim and try to get a few in the paint shots or at the rim shots.”
So, there’s a lot going on. Nurse has said that when he’s watched Lowry’s recent film he’s simply seen a guy who isn’t confidently taking his shot. The looks are there, he’s just not letting them fly like he normally would.
How does a coach address that? You could run some plays specifically designed for Lowry to shoot. The Raptors have around a half dozen of those, and were actually trying to prioritize them earlier this season — particularly late in the fourth quarter — in order to keep Lowry involved in the dawn of the Kawhi Leonard era.
But the Raptors got away from that a bit in recent games, which isn’t the source of Lowry’s struggles, but also isn’t helping. And it’s not always so easy. Lowry often gets blitzed by defences, which takes the ball out of his hands. Nurse has attempted to mitigate that by giving him different looks off a variety of down and double screens, trying to free him up for catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Still, that only takes you so far. The Raptors will still play out of their open set plenty throughout a game, and Lowry will have to find ways to be productive when they do. It’s not like he hasn’t before. Nurse thinks it’s simply about Lowry finding his natural rhythm again within the Raptors offence, and taking his opportunities when they present themselves.
“Don’t turn them down, don’t overpass it. You’re a primary scorer for us. Get aggressive in transition. Let’s see some of those deep bombs in transition,” Nurse said before Sunday’s game. “I don’t want him to say, ‘Geez, I haven’t shot well for three games so I’m going to limit my attempts.’ In fact, it should be the opposite. I’d like to see him pull about 10 of them tonight.”
Nurse certainly didn’t see that. And he didn’t see the deep bombs either. Lowry took only one shot in his first run of play, a pull-up three in transition that hit the rim. He moved the ball wall and set up Serge Ibaka with a couple makeable threes that didn’t fall. But he also turned the ball over three times, including once on a fast break that he normally converts into two points or a trip to the foul line.
Lowry’s first assists finally came in his second stint, as he set up Fred VanVleet for a pair of threes. But Lowry was too heavy with his second three-point attempt of the night late in the second quarter. He bricked two more threes in the third, including one catch-and-shoot and one unguarded at the top of the arc. He missed another in the fourth.
Lowry was still doing all the little things that make him such a complete player. Hustle plays, diving after loose balls, defending with vigour. But at some point, he’s going to have to score.
“I feel like he should be a little bit more aggressive,” said Leonard. “I think he’s been shooting it good, it’s just the ball hasn’t been falling for him. He’s a guy that wants to get everybody involved. We’re still in the games late with him struggling with shooting. He’s just got to keep being himself and they’re going to fall. He’s going to knock down shots for sure.”
Offensively, it was a very, very bad game. But, to be clear, this isn’t a disaster. To assess Lowry based only on this tough five-game stretch while ignoring the six strong seasons — four of them resulting in all-star nods — he’s put up in Toronto would be ridiculous. This stretch is merely troubling. A situation of some concern because of how much the Raptors need Lowry. Leonard is Toronto’s best player by a mile, but Lowry is just as important. This team simply will not win without him playing the way he can.
Is health a factor? It sure could be. At the end of his usual 10-minute first quarter shift, Lowry went straight back to the Raptors locker room and remained there until the beginning of the second. Could be something; could be nothing. Who’s to say?
Lowry missed a game earlier this month due to a back issue and is playing two minutes more per night on average than he did last season. But he’s been his usual self defensively, and if something was limiting him substantially, wouldn’t it show up at both ends of the floor rather than only one? It’s pointless to speculate either way, because the last thing Lowry’s going to do is cop to anything that’s bothering him physically. If he’s on the floor, he’s good to play.
If there’s a reason for Lowry’s slump it’s likely the simplest one — that slumps happen. In every league, not only the NBA. And in everyone’s life, not only professional athletes. Sometimes things just don’t go your way for a while. It’s happened to Lowry before. It’ll probably happen again. The important thing is continuing to play through it as if it wasn’t happening, being yourself, shooting your shot, and trusting that the end is near.
For Lowry, that end didn’t come Sunday. Maybe next time out. Or the time after that. It’s hard to imagine what it will look like if this wasn’t the nadir.