Raptors begin piecing together Leonard-Lowry puzzle with duo reunited

Kawhi Leonard finished with 31 points, six steals and six assists to lead the Raptors to a 104-101 win over Vince Carter and the Hawks Tuesday.

TORONTO — Somewhat incredibly, the Toronto Raptors are 15-6 when playing with only one of their two best players, Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, and — including Tuesday’s clumsy 104-101 victory over the Atlanta Hawks — 16-6 when playing with both.

Does that tell us anything? Maybe it says that it takes only one superstar and a dependable supporting cast to win regular season games in the NBA. Maybe it says that the Raptors are a very deep, very good team that can find ways to win no matter the personnel on hand any given night. And maybe it says that, when it comes to the potential of Toronto’s top tandem, we still have much to learn.

Unfortunately for head coach Nick Nurse, those learning opportunities have been few and far between. Tuesday’s win brought an end to a month-long, 14-game stretch in which Leonard and Lowry never played together. Thus far, the duo have shared the floor in only a hair over half of Toronto’s 43 games.

“I think it’s been too few, if you want my honest opinion,” Nurse said at his team’s shootaround Tuesday morning. “They’re our two best players and we need our two best players on the floor.”

It should go without saying. For all the nice stories the Raptors have had up and down the roster this season, such as the emergence of Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka’s quiet effectiveness, the energetic and impactful return of Norman Powell, and Danny Green’s all-around contributions, this basketball team will either suffocate or thrive on the play of Leonard and Lowry.

And the early returns were encouraging. Through Dec. 9, Leonard and Lowry had played to a plus-10.7 net rating when on the floor together — which could be better, could be worse. It was at least trending up. After some early hiccups, it looked like they were developing something.

Then, they traded inactives for a month. Lowry with a stubborn back injury that turned out far worse than he’d expected, Leonard with intermittent nights off meant to allay the physical deterioration 82 basketball games will bear. This wasn’t the plan, particularly following a training camp in which Nurse prioritized getting the two as much floor time together as possible. But when does anything go according to plan?

“It’s luck. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad,” Nurse said recently. “It’s just coincidence, really. It kind of goes with the territory, especially for us this year.”

When Nurse is asked to commend either Leonard or Lowry, he often shares opposing thoughts. He likes Lowry’s pace, the way he speeds the game up. How he’s always pushing the action, getting the ball in and up quickly, turning the possession page quicker than anyone else on the floor. And he likes Leonard’s steadiness, the way he slows the game down. How he spins the ball in his hands and makes the world stand still, meticulously scanning and surveying before he dissects whoever’s in front of him.

And maybe that helps explain why the duo took some time to find chemistry with one another earlier this season. It’s not like the Raptors were playing poorly when they shared the floor. But it wasn’t exactly ballet. Sometimes, Lowry would take charge and force the issue, leaving Leonard looking a little lost as to how he fit in. At others, Leonard would have the ball and an isolated defender before him, while Lowry slinked to a corner beyond the arc and awaited an outcome.

“I think we want to see some more minutes together, some more cohesion together,” Nurse said. “It’s pretty simple when one of them is on and one of them is off. It becomes a little harder, in a good way, [when they share the floor.] It’s a good problem that you’ve got two choices to make — who’s bringing it, who isn’t bringing it.

“And I think there’s some pace issues we need to get through a little bit. I’d like our pace to be a little bit better when the two of them are on the floor. But that’s more on me, or on us, to just have a little bit more urgency to get it up the floor and play a little quicker.”

Take Tuesday’s game, for example. During one of Toronto’s earliest offensive possessions, Lowry and Leonard seemed locked in a selflessness competition. Leonard passed up a look and dished to Lowry. They Lowry passed up his own look and passed to Leonard. Then back to Lowry. Then to Leonard. And then the shot clock expired.

Yes, the duo’s first shift in a month was not a good one. Lowry finished his first eight minutes without a point or an assist, while Leonard was mostly quiet aside from an assertive and-one to open the game. By the time Lowry checked out, the Hawks were up four.

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Their next spell together, midway through the second quarter, was a bit better offensively, as Lowry found Leonard in the corner for a three before Leonard engineered a fast break that resulted in Lowry setting up Ibaka for a three of his own. But the Raptors’ defence was porous, and Atlanta got anything it wanted in the Raptors’ end. Again, the Hawks won the Leonard-Lowry minutes, this time by six.

With the pair sharing the floor together to begin the second half, things seemed headed in a similar direction. But after a rough start, Leonard and Lowry took turns setting each other up for threes, and then Siakam got involved in the playmaking, which may be the most important development of all. By the time Lowry was summoned back to his prone, towel-draped position on the court before the Raptors bench, Toronto had finally won a Leonard-Lowry run of play, 19-13.

And they won the final one, the one that mattered most, edging the Hawks by two after Lowry checked back in with seven minutes remaining. The Raptors never really looked good on this night, per se. But this is when Leonard and Lowry looked their best — pushing the pace, jumping passing lanes on defence, forcing turnovers, creating looks for teammates, and winning the game.

That last part happened with 25 seconds remaining, when Leonard found his sixth steal of the night and began a fast break. As Leonard ran with John Collins on his hip, Lowry set a devastating, blindside pick, dropping Collins to the floor and freeing up his teammate. From there, all five Raptors touched the ball in succession, culminating in an Ibaka dunk and a Toronto lead that wouldn’t be relinquished.

It may be the best thing the Raptors did all night. And it came at the game’s most critical moment.

That’s important. While it’s only January, and the Raptors are still well within figuring-things-out territory, it’s also January, and the Raptors should probably have more figured out by now than they do. Nurse needs to know how his team will respond in crucial moments with both Leonard and Lowry on the floor. The players need to know themselves. Their mettle has to be tested.

Considering 26 of Toronto’s final 39 games will be played against teams either at or below .500, the Raptors may only have so many nights remaining with which to accomplish that. You can run your late-game sets over and over on the practice court, but it’s impossible to replicate the pressure and intensity felt beneath the lights. In those moments, as live rounds fly, the ball’s going to be in Leonard’s or Lowry’s hands.

“Probably the biggest thing is we’ve got to be able to execute in crunch time down the stretch with those two guys out there,” Nurse said. “We’ve got to know where we’re going, where the ball’s going, where the shot’s going, what plays we’re running, what special situations late in games we’re running. Those are the things I’m going to be focusing on. … It’s huge. It becomes a really big factor come playoff time.”

Playoff time is fast approaching. And in the time before playoffs, the Raptors have much to learn.

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