Raptors’ playoff chances turn on a dime


Kyle Lowry has averaged 7.3 assists per game in Raptors' wins this season. In losses that number falls to 5.9. (Photo: Nathan Denette/CP)

Down by three with 35 seconds left on the game clock, Kyle Lowry brings the ball past half court, finds a spot behind the arc above the left elbow and surveys the floor as he waits for his teammates to catch up. It’s early December at the Air Canada Centre and the Raptors are in the midst of a dogfight with the Denver Nuggets, looking to avoid a third straight home loss.

At Lowry’s signal, the Johnsons—Amir and James—set a double screen to the right of the Raps’ all-star point guard. He takes a step toward them then crosses back in the opposite direction, leaving a wake of white-and-blue Nuggets jerseys as he cuts his way along the baseline. By the time he reaches the hoop, four Denver defenders have recovered to swarm him. And for good reason. A 20-point-per-game scorer, Lowry established himself early on this season as one of the NBA’s biggest threats at the point guard position, and in the five games prior, he’d averaged a whopping 28.4 points.

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Lowry isn’t looking for his shot, though. With Nuggets surrounding him, he somehow spots Patrick Patterson at the top of the key and freezes the defence with a quick head fake. Lowry fires a pass through the sea of defenders and into the hands of his open teammate, who calmly sinks the triple. Tie game. The Raptors go on to win in overtime with Lowry the hero, more than making up for a 3-for-13 shooting night with 13 assists.

Looking back on it today, Patterson calls the dime that set up his game-tying three the most impressive pass he’s received from Lowry in his Raptors tenure. “The way he was able to penetrate to the basket,” Patterson says, “and just his awareness of me being open while he had four guys around him in the paint in such a key moment of the game.” He pauses, struck dumb for a moment. “Wow.”

As the Raptors return to the playoffs, it’s a healthy Kyle Lowry—the one who renders his teammates speechless—that they’ll need if they want to accomplish their goal of getting past the first round. Yes, the point man will always be a scoring threat, but by nearly every measure, Lowry the playmaker is more valuable to this team than Lowry the scorer.

The Raptors roster is loaded with guys whose strongest trait is their ability to put the ball in the hoop. Putting those players in a position to score will always be a priority. But the beauty of Lowry’s passing is that it benefits every player around him—not just natural scorers like DeMar DeRozan, Lou Williams or Jonas Valanciunas.

Take Tyler Hansbrough, for example, who, when asked about Lowry’s passing, recalls a play against the Indiana Pacers last month. “Kyle drove the lane, got through two or three people, and I was trailing behind. I didn’t know he even saw me or knew I was there, but all of a sudden, I see the ball coming, and it went right into my hands,” he says. “He set me up for the perfect dunk.”

Of course, the key is finding the perfect harmony that will allow Lowry to remain in attack mode while also being mindful of his teammates. “Everybody has different roles,” explains backup point guard Greivis Vasquez. “With Kyle, he’s someone who we need to score and make people better around him.”

It’s a tightrope that only the league’s top point guards have to traverse. And, as the numbers tell you, when Lowry walks it successfully, the Raptors win.

This article appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of Sportsnet magazine.

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