The Toronto Raptors have a Kyle Lowry problem.
When Lowry is on the court, they’re an exceptional team. They can create offensively and their defence communicates well. But when he’s off the court, things fall apart.
It’s been a problem for the Raptors for a long time. Even at 34 years old, Lowry has a knack for making everyone around him better. He can take over a game when things get bogged down and he has no problem working with bench units, getting the most out of the guys around him. The problem for the Raptors is Lowry can’t play 48 minutes and when he sits, opposing teams take over. On Tuesday night, that problem was made abundantly clear as the Raptors fell to 0-3 with a 100-93 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
“He just keeps everyone in line,” Raptors forward OG Anunoby said of Lowry.
It was clear right from the jump how important Lowry is for Toronto. He led the team right out of the gate, building up a double-digit lead to end the first. But once Lowry hit the bench, Toronto’s lead dwindled as the 76ers came clawing all the way.
By the end of the first half, the difference was clear: Toronto was plus-17 with Lowry on the court and minus-nine without him.
Even when Toronto built back its lead in the second half, once Lowry checked out, the Lowry-less problem returned. The Raptors couldn’t seem to find any offensive rhythm without Lowry on, falling into another extended scoring drought.
“I think we’re not being strong enough with the ball,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of the team’s five-minute scoreless streak. “We’re making some hard driving things and it seems like we’re either having a late pass handling issue, a finishing issue, or even when we do go up without a pass we lost the ball out of bounds a few times. Kind of on our own, if they were hitting it out of bounds we would retain the ball but we just kind of have not handled the ball with enough strength late in the game.”
The Raptors’ relative inability to function without Lowry is a problem not only because they need to be able to create with bench units and other combinations on the floor, but also because Lowry is nearing the end of his career and is in the final year of his contract with the Raptors. There’s been hope that Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam could step up and take some of the load off Lowry’s back, but that’s yet to become a regular occurrence.
Even in a game in which Siakam scored 20 points, he struggled mightily in the fourth quarter, scoring just two points in the final frame before fouling out in the final minutes.
“He’s got to get a little stronger at the end of his drives,” Nurse said. “He’s got to play to make a tough finishing basket rather than playing for the possible foul. It’s hard to score when you’re playing to draw a foul rather than playing to score and then if there’s contact, that’s a bonus.”
Through three games, Siakam is a combined 1-for-9 with just two points in the fourth quarter. In total, he’s been a minus-20 in the final frame of the Raptors’ first three games.
“I’d say he’s our closer,” Nurse said. “I think, again, he’s going to get the opportunities there and I think the increased reps will get him there. He’s got to find his balance, he has to find his strength a little bit, he’s going to have to produce on a few more of those shots.”
Instead, when the Raptors needed to create offence late, they turned to Lowry who scored nine of his team-high 24 points in the final quarter. He finished the night just shy of a triple-double with nine assists and eight rebounds.
OG Anunoby Shows Old Self:
The Raptors’ 23-year-old forward showed why he’s one of the best 3-and-D prospects in the NBA on Tuesday night. He didn’t do anything particularly flashy from a developmental point of view, but he was about as good as the Raptors can hope for this season. He nailed his 3-point looks, shooting 4-for-7 from behind the arc, and he played the kind of lockdown defence he’s become known for. He finished the night with five steals, leading to some easy buckets for Toronto.
Stanley Johnson Plays?
Stanley Johnson, yes, Stanley Herbert Johnson Jr. played significant minutes for the Raptors on Tuesday including in the Raptors crunch-time bench unit to start the fourth quarter. It was a shocking decision from Nurse considering Johnson only played over 10 minutes three times last season, but a decision that made some sense considering Johnson’s length and ability to defend against Ben Simmons and the 76ers’ long wings.
“There was an opportunity for him tonight,” Nurse said. “The depth of the roster looks like there’s a need for a backup 3-4, and he might take that over. I hope he can give us just what he gave us tonight. If he can, he’s got a shot in the rotation. That’s what it comes down to: some consistency. I think he’s gonna earn a lot of favour with the veteran guys if he’s gonna play that hard and defend like that.”
He finished the night with seven points and eight rebounds.
Raptors Fall to 0-3
For a team that’s been so good at winning close games lately, the Raptors have had the tides turn against them this season, dropping the first three games of the season in relatively close fashion. In all three games, they’ve squandered double-digit leads due to extended scoreless stretches.
“Just letting our foot off the pedal and just not keeping the same urgency that we have when we’re going on our runs, getting these big leads,” Anunoby said of the issue. “So just keeping our foot on the pedal the whole 48 minutes to finish out the game.”
It’s not panic time yet, but in a 72 games season, dropping another game or two would certainly raise concerns.
“We don’t have time to waste no more, we’re 0-3 and we need a win really, really bad,” Lowry said. “I feel like we’re getting to that point where it’s a must win. We gotta do everything we possibly can to win the next game.
“We’re definitely in a bad spot,” he added. “We haven’t won a game but we could be 3-0. We were in position to win all three games and unfortunately, it didn’t work out for us.”
Up Next: New York Knicks
The Raptors will return home for a date with Canadian RJ Barrett and the New York Knicks on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.