Season of change for Raptors shines a spotlight on Kyle Lowry’s significance

The Toronto Raptors tied a franchise record hitting 21 three-pointers as the beat the Miami Heat 125-104. Kyle Lowry lead the way going 6/11 from beyond the arc, scoring a game-high 24.

Kyle Lowry had himself a game on Sunday night in Miami. The 32-year-old point guard led the Toronto Raptors to a decisive win thanks in part to a 24-point, 10 assist, seven rebound performance that also saw him go an impressive 6-11 from beyond the arc.

Two nights earlier, he posted his second triple-double of the season in Toronto’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans. The team looks to wrap up their three-game road trip undefeated with a win in Cleveland against the Cavaliers on Monday night.

The Raptors’ lineup — and fortunes — have undergone fairly major changes this season, for the better. But among the constants — the ever-improving Pascal Siakam, the steady Fred VanVleet, the new-and-improved Serge Ibaka and the developing OG Anunoby — Lowry remains as critical as ever to the Raptors’ success, even if the way he goes about impacting his team has changed fairly significantly.

The biggest shift in Lowry’s offensive approach as a scoring option came last season, when the Raptors entered the campaign with a much-ballyhooed, faster, more efficient, ball-moving offense meant to help the team unlock its potential. It worked — until the playoffs when the club seemed to reverted to its iso-heavy ways whenever their backs were to the wall.

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But in the 2017-18 regular season, over 45 per cent of Lowry’s shot attempts were of the catch-and-shoot variety, with field goals being launched after touching the ball for less than two seconds, according to NBA.com’s tracking statistics. This season that number is just over 47 per cent.

Go back to 2016-17, however, and the majority of Lowry’s shots — 39.1 per cent — came after having possession of the ball for between 2-6 seconds. From afar it’s a relatively minor distinction, but those few seconds speak volumes about how he’s adjusted his role. The possessions spent taking a pounding en route to the rim are fewer and further between — which also bodes well for his health, which has long-been an issue come playoff time after a long regular season spent bouncing off of bigger bodies like a pinball.

The rapid-fire catch-and-shoot three has become a fundamental tool for NBA offenses these days as teams look to maximize both scoring opportunities and possessions. Lowry, like many others, has adapted accordingly.

But whereas it was easier for defenses to zero in on Lowry in the past, with more weapons on the floor for Toronto this season, it’s become riskier for teams to keep a defender locked on the point guard, instead needing that extra body to switch off in help situations.

The result? Over 50 per cent of Lowry’s three point shots this season are classified, according to NBA.com, as “open” (a defender within 4-6 feet) or “wide open” (defenders six or more feet away).

And lately, Lowry has been making them pay. He started the season on fire from three-point land, but cooled down in a major way by December. Good timing to revert back to early-season form considering the playoffs are roughly one month away and a hot-shooting Lowry is absolutely capable of swinging a series or, at the very least, seriously disrupting an opponents’ game plan.

On Sunday against the Heat, the left corner three was his most effective weapon:

After disappointing from beyond the arc for much of the year — remember, on paper this was a team that projected to be lethal from deep heading into the season — the Raptors have not-so-quietly turned it around as of late.

On the season, Lowry is shooting just 34.4 per cent from deep — his lowest mark in a decade. However, the turnaround is under way, and over his last 10 games he’s shooting 41.4 per cent on his three-pointers. There’s more to suggest how important a locked-in Lowry is to Toronto’s success:

What the stats say

To no surprise, the numbers back up what would appear to be self-evident: The Raptors are a much better team when Kyle Lowry is at his best. Consider the following:

• They are 23-1 in games where he registers a net rating over 10.

• When Lowry plays passive they’re barely above .500, a 6-5 record when his usage rate is below 15 per cent. That there have only been 11 such games speaks to his significant role on the court — as the quarterback on both ends of the floor, and as both a key scorer and distributor.

• The Raps are 20-2 when Lowry shoots 40 per cent or better from deep.

• They are 19-5 when more than two-thirds of his shot attempts come from beyond the arc — this is a major area in which his scoring role has adjusted under Nick Nurse and alongside Kawhi Leonard. When he’s aggressive, and taking advantage of three-point opportunities, the team is generally better off for it.

While his scoring approach has undergone evident changes, perhaps the biggest area of difference this season is his passing and the pure volume of his assists compared to past seasons. His point production has dropped significantly — he’s averaging nearly ten points per game fewer this season than two years ago — and a lot of it comes down to recognizing where he can be most valuable to this specific Raptors team.

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Lowry is currently averaging 9.1 assists per game this season, second-best in the NBA, and nearly two assists more per game than his previous career-high set back in 2013-14.

There have been plenty of games, like Sunday’s, where the Raptors needed Lowry to put up his shots and get points on the board — yes, a lot of that has to do with the team being without Kawhi Leonard, as was the case Sunday. Lowry has stepped up in Leonard’s absence time and time again. In the 18 games Leonard has missed, Lowry has upped his scoring average from 14 to 18 points per game, while also raising his assist rate to 11 per game in that span.

With or without Leonard, Lowry’s ability to set up his teammates is crucial, and he’s doing a great job of elevating those around him; VanVleet, Danny Green, Norman Powell, and Ibaka are among the players whose three-point shooting percentage rises considerably when those shots are coming from a pass from Lowry.

Surrounded by more talent — and shielded, in a way, by the magnetic force that accompanies Kawhi Leonard to the court, a calibre of player Lowry hasn’t played alongside prior to this season — the Raptors may not be as dependant on their all-star point guard on a game-to-game basis like we’ve seen in previous years.

But, as he showed this past weekend, that doesn’t mean he’s not as important as ever to the team’s success.

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