OK, so much shit has gone down, so I'll try to unpack it as best as possible. The way that I see it, since the Orlando game on January 29th, the Raptors have seen three phases; albeit the third and most recent phase being quite new and brief. Since then, there have been six games that have really shifted the way this team is viewed, and perhaps that's a bit unfair when you look at the big picture. This entry may be a bit longer than I'd actually like it to be, but with so much that has transpired, I feel I'd be doing a disservice if I didn't mention what I feel to be important. Some of this may not be chronological, but it should all tie together in the end. So let's dive right in.
Kyle Lowry has been nothing short of phenomenal. There's really no other way to describe the effort he has been putting in, night in and night out. From becoming the sole leader during DeRozan's absence, to carrying the team in high pressure situations, to playing the past two games with the flu, you'd be naive to doubt the man's character and competitiveness. First thing's first -
- 3 Point Contest: With Stephen Curry bowing out of the 3-Point Contest during the All-Star festivities, Lowry has been selected (and has accepted) to compete in his stead, joining Klay Thompson, Eric Gordon, Kyrie Irving, C.J. McCollum, Kemba Walker, Wesley Matthews, and Nick Young. This is the second year in a row that Lowry has elected to participate in the contest, and looks to rebound off last year's performance. Although there are people that think it may be best for Lowry to skip the contest altogether and get some much needed rest (more on this in a bit), I think that any time the Raptors have an opportunity to be represented in any fashion, it should be taken advantage of. There's no reason to doubt that Lowry will be competitive, but there's also this understanding that practically everything that takes place during the festivities are for fun, leaving the level of physical exertion you'd see during an actual game at the door. I don't see this taxing him enough for it to be a concern. I mean, c'mon; we all know that if Isaiah Thomas was chosen instead of Lowry, we'd consider it unfair and biased. Let's just enjoy it. Lowry has been clutch from deep when it has counted this year. Which leads me to...
- Franchise Leader: During the game against the Clippers on Monday evening, Kyle Lowry has become the all-time leading 3-Point scorer in Raptors' history with 802 (and counting), passing Morris Peterson. Nothing more needs to be elaborated on when it comes to this accomplishment. I just thought it was worth noting. It should not be understated.
- On His Back: Since DeMar DeRozan had to miss 4 games with an ankle injury, the offense has relied heavily on Lowry's back. During those 4 games, Lowry would practically be the most reliable scorer on the team, shooting 45% and logging in heavy minutes ( 44:51, 37:54, 42:12, & 39:12) during that span. You have to wonder if this type of volume on the court will be detrimental to Lowry when the Raptors will rely on him the most - in the playoffs.
Right now it's a bit early to worry about seeding and trying to figure out which team the Raptors are most likely to face in the playoffs. With 30 games left to play, I don't really have much doubt that they'll climb out of the hole that they've dug themselves in and reclaim the 2nd spot in the East. Regardless of where the Raptors seed, though, it will be almost impossible to make it out of the first round with a gassed Lowry. I mean, last year they had a difficult time getting out of the first round series against Indiana, and this was with a more fit Lowry than we had previously seen.
Regardless of winning only 2 out of 4 during DeRozan's absence, Lowry stepped in up in key situations, specifically during the Celtics loss. Look, I can't stand them either, and I live there. But Lowry did everything he could to win that game for the Raptors, basically going shot-for-shot with Isaiah Thomas in the 4th; finishing the game with 32 points. Most the blame for the loss was a result of piss-poor defense and complete lack of control with the ball, coughing up 15 turnovers and basically allowing IT to have his way with them. Yet, even though that was a bitter pill to swallow, Lowry made it clear that he'll put the team on his back whenever the situation calls for it.
The dip in the standings and in performance needs to be addressed. The Raptors have struggled mightily over the course of the past six games (Orl, N.O, @Bos, @Orl, @Bkn, & LAC). Granted, the dip in production on the court largely has to due with the absence of both DeRozan and Patrick Patterson, it can't be denied that the Raptors still should have been able to win at least 4 of those six instead of 3 (it does make a difference considering the teams). There is absolutely no excuse to lose two in a row against Orlando, especially one of which being played on the Raptors' home court. There's no real excuse why the Raptors had to go to overtime against a team like New Orleans, while holding Anthony Davis to 18 points on the first of a back-to-back. I can grant the Celtics loss based on the night before, but to allow them to come back from an 18 point deficit in the 4th quarter is embarrassing. The biggest "well then!" moment was when Dwane Casey practically benched Cory Joseph in favor of Fred VanVleet as the back up point-guard for Kyle Lowry. This was largely due to Joseph's complete lack of defense during the stretch of games, and his inability to create any offense. VanVleet played extremely well in Joseph's stead, but we can't simply rely on an undrafted rookie to fill this position in the long-term.
However, there were some bright spots. If there's one thing that we can be encouraged with, it's Norman Powell's performance and his ability to slide into the 2-spot if anything serious should happen to DeRozan. Right now, for me, any potential trade that the Raptors make should not involve Powell unless it's a legitimate game changer (say, Millsap plus and extension. Anything less is a hard no). During DeRozan's absence, #NormToTheFuture (still making this a thing) shot 52% from the field and averaged approximately 36 minutes on the court. His offensive efficiency has been encouraging, as well as his defensive capabilities in high pressure situations. I truly believe that Powell could be a piece that the Raptors could build around once the Lowry and DeRozan era comes to a close. The one thing, however, that he needs to work on is how he finishes after driving into the lane. Powell has the ability to create space and drive to the rim, yet can't seem to finish with the soft buckets once he gets into the paint. If he's able to fix that, expect his production to rise. He's earned the right to play more than just a handful of minutes a game. Trust the Future.
Lastly, if we are to be further encouraged, we need to look no further than the most recent game against the Clippers. DeRozan returned and you could clearly see that the flow of the game was much improved. Now, knowing off the top that the Clippers played without Chris Paul who's dealing with an injury of his own, having DeRozan rest the previous 4 games to get right will benefit the Raptors in the long-term. The ball movement was much improved, turning over the ball a total of 9 times throughout the entire game (compared to 11 against the Magic in their most recent outing, and 15 against the Celtics). Valanciunas was able to keep Blake Griffin at bay, while shooting 9/13 in the field, and grabbing 12 boards. Hopefully he has ditched the unconvincing pump fake that he seems to do whenever he receives the ball at the top of the paint, and continues to simply shoot it and stay in rhythm.
DeRozan also looked like he never missed a beat, shooting 11/22 in the field, nailing two (yes two) treys and logging 38 minutes. With a minute count that high on his first game back from an injury, there's little reason to doubt that DeRozan is now healthy and able to play at a high level. Assuming this, the Raptors should have no issue climbing back into the two-spot in the East. It's reasonable to believe that the Celtics won't continue to play at this level and will regress back to the mean. I still believe that, as they stand, the Raptors are a better team and will be able to perform as such down the stretch.
So if you're still in panic-mode, don't be. The Clippers game was very encouraging because the Raptors played as a complete unit with cohesion. I don't necessarily count the Brooklyn game because A) it was a 12:00p.m. start time game, which almost never happens, and B) it's Brooklyn. I consider Clippers to have been the "get-right" game that they needed to break out of this slump. Now with Minnesota, Detroit, and Chicago looming (only the Detroit game to be played in Toronto), the Raptors need to carry this momentum and gain some ground in the East.
Just be patient.