Early in a 111-82 Game 2 win against the Orlando Magic on Tuesday, Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry executed one of the most elementary plays in basketball: the give-and-go. As soon as he lofted the ball to center Marc Gasol, Lowry sprinted around him, received a handoff and barreled his way toward the basket, drawing a foul on Magic center Nikola Vucevic. This was an encouraging sign, not because his ensuing trip to the free throw line ensured Lowry wouldn’t go scoreless, as he did in the series opener, but because it revealed his mentality. Lowry was on the attack.
At his best, Lowry is a roving, relentless ball of energy. He didn’t develop into an All-Star because of his one-on-one skills or athleticism; he got there by combining the basketball IQ that all elite point guards possess with the attitude and fearlessness of an overlooked backup. Defending Lowry is a chore because he never stops moving, never lets you off the hook and is always looking for tiny advantages to exploit. His style is utilitarian, more efficient than it is exciting — he is the kind of player who laughs at the idea of trying to pull off fancy moves — and he is unapologetically brash. Which is why this season has been a bit weird for him.
In 2018-19, Lowry has taken a significant step back in terms of usage and shot attempts. Nick Nurse, Toronto’s new, gunslinging coach, said in December that he would love Lowry to take 10 3s per game, but also recently said that he can lead the team to a victory “no matter if he scores four or 34” points, via ESPN. That is true because these Raptors are structured differently than those of years past. Kawhi Leonard is definitively their best player, and Lowry’s willingness to defer has facilitated the emergence of Most Improved Player front-runner Pascal Siakam and the quick integration of Marc Gasol. Lowry started the season on fire and shot well for most of the second half of the season, but in between there were games when he passed up shots and looked unsure of himself. It is hard to find a rhythm when you’re thinking about getting other players involved. It is hard when you’re thinking at all.
The Lowry discussion between Saturday and Tuesday’s games grew tiresome quickly. He was described as a playoff choker despite all the evidence over the past few years suggesting the opposite. Numerous players-turned-analysts on TV said it was unacceptable for an All-Star to go scoreless, as if his off night were an insult to All-Stardom. Just before tip-off, TNT’s Charles Barkley went on and on about how he’d rather go 0-for-14 than 0-for-7, with all of the machismo that you’d expect. Presumably none of this would have taken place if Lowry had made just two of his six 3-point attempts, most of which were open, and the Raptors had eked out a win.
Lowry’s loudest supporters, on the other hand, pointed to him being plus-11 and argued that his contributions should never be judged solely on makes and misses. Orlando coach Steve Clifford told reporters that Lowry was terrific and “put a ton of pressure on us.” Lowry himself said he “played the game the right way and missed some shots.” All of this, too, missed the mark — even if you think much of the criticism was lazy, it would be selling him short to argue that he played up to his standard. The Magic’s length seemed to bother him, and he didn’t play with the urgency or decisiveness that you need in the postseason. Some of that can be chalked up to him feeling Orlando out, which might explain his prior struggles in series openers. I thought the smart guy was thinking too much.
His second game can be described as a bounce-back performance. Lowry had 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting, plus seven assists, four rebounds and two steals. What stood out to me, though, was not the scoring.
He took charges against Aaron Gordon and Vucevic, two men much bigger than him:
He had a sneaky tip-in when the Magic lost track of him:
Three times, he put Siakam in position to score by making an extremely Kyle Lowry play — first, blocking D.J. Augustin, the man who outplayed him in Game 1; second, stealing a ridiculous rebound in a sea of Magic players; third, poking the ball away from a driving Evan Fournier:
These plays are why Lowry was 20th in the league in real plus-minus despite his scoring average falling to 14.2 points. They were not wholly absent in Game 1, but they were more frequent in Game 2. Lowry’s aggressiveness was not necessarily the biggest reason the Raptors evened the series — Leonard asserted his dominion over the Magic’s kingdom, the team defense was incredible — but it is important as they try to embark on a long playoff run. If they are going anywhere, they can’t have Lowry second-guessing. They need him to be himself.