A turnaround jumper was the Toronto Raptors’ shot at recognition. DeMar DeRozan faked his defender left, spun right, picked out his 5-iron, and released with 3.9 seconds left in the one-possession game against Boston on Sunday. A victory that night would have ended the Celtics’ 11-game win streak, an unignorable statement that the thus-far forgotten Raptors deserved to be mentioned alongside the Eastern Conference A-listers. DeRozan’s try fell short. Boston won its 12th straight.
The team trusts DeRozan to take that shot. (Even Jaylen Brown, the defender DeRozan managed to shake off, said afterward that the jumper is one Toronto’s sharpshooter “probably hits nine times out of 10.”) That a well-guarded, quick-release midrange jumper was widely assumed as the optimal buzzer-beating option speaks to DeRozan’s marksmanship.
That Kyle Lowry, during his best performance of the season, received the ball with 11 seconds left and dished it to DeRozan, who had gone a cold 8-for-21 before the attempt, says something else entirely.
Toronto’s stout, 6-foot playmaker made the right call — even on a night in which he was personally shooting 50 percent while DeRozan missed 14 shots. It’s the kind self-awareness an early-season slump provides. But it’s also the antithesis of the Lowry from last April, who said, “I’m gonna have to force shots,” after a loss in Game 1 of the Raptors’ first-round playoff series to the Bucks.
He continued that night: “I felt I made the right passes last night, but my teammates … I guess I’ll be forcing more shots. Let’s put it that way.”
I’ll put it this way: Twelve games into the 2017–18 season, Lowry is taking fewer shots per night than he has in any season since 2012–13. He’s touching the ball less, dribbling less, and spending more time squatting in the corner (though logging fewer tries from the perimeter), and he has yet to break 20 points. Streaky shooting and rough starts are par for the course for Lowry — but have the Raptors taken their offense somewhere he can’t play?
After Cleveland swept the Raptors out of the last postseason, Lowry opted out of the final year of his contract. That was an expected decision. For as oft-injured as Lowry is, the three-time All-Star is still worth more than the $12 million he would have received on his old deal. Frustration stemming from another postseason without the Raptors breaking through their glass ceiling left his return to Toronto in question, but the 31-year-old re-signed in July, inking a three-year, $100 million deal.
After all the rumors of Lowry looking elsewhere, it seemed like he was settling. He revealed as much in late October. “It was real for me,” Lowry said of his interest in joining the Spurs, “but it wasn’t real for them. […] I would have loved to come [to San Antonio], but it didn’t work out. The conversation didn’t happen.”
“Not saying that I wanted out,” he clarified, before again stating that San Antonio “would’ve been a great place.”
The Raptors were two games into the 2017–18 season then, debuting major offensive tweaks that saw them rely less on isolation and focus more on sharing the ball. Toronto finished as one of the worst teams at moving the ball last regular season, passing the fourth-fewest times per game in the league, and it became an even bigger issue in the playoffs. This season’s Raptors are still learning the craft: They collectively pass 20 more times per game than last season, but that’s still more than 60 fewer than the best in the league. They occasionally revert back to isos when they’re desperate, too (as with many of DeRozan’s attempts against the Celtics, for example).
Lowry is the first to admit the change has thrown off his game. “I think the way we’re moving the ball, the ball’s not in my hands as much,” he said a week ago. “They want me to just try to get everyone involved and, for me, I’ve been used to having the ball in my hands. […] [If] I don’t have the ball, I can’t read the defense as much as I usually could before.
“Last couple years, Coach would give me the game for the first five, six, seven minutes. I could feel out the game and get passes off and get everyone involved and now it’s like everyone has to be involved from the jump. For me, it’s getting off the ball, moving and cutting, and it just hasn’t been there for me yet.”
Positioning a talented spot-up shooter like Lowry off the ball more often provides more of the spacing the Raptors (and the league) are pushing toward, even if it’s initially uncomfortable for their point guard. The frequent attacks to the rim that once made Toronto so lethal haven’t stopped — the team is driving to the basket more than any other— but are now used as opportunities to kick the ball outward. No team has passed out of more drives than the Raptors, who, in turn, create nearly a fourth of their assists doing so. They top even Miami, which resuscitated its offense last season by having Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters power inward to create open shots at the perimeter. Toronto finds more catch-and-shoot looks from 3 than even Golden State, and every returning member of the roster is averaging more 3-point attempts than they did last season (yes, DeRozan, too) — except Lowry.
That Lowry has less time in the game and with the ball explains some of his statistical backslide, but it can’t account for the more glaring decline in free throw attempts. The frequent-flier status Lowry earned through regular trips to the line — he averaged a top-20 6.1 tries last season — has dipped to 1.8 attempts this season. (That’s fewer than what he produced off drives alone in 2016–17). Lowry is the forgotten loser of the league’s decision to crack down on the infamous James Harden “shoulder shimmy” foul. By last season’s end, the Toronto point guard had racked up the third-most whistles in the league while shooting the 3. But offseason backlash forced referees to refine the definition and attempt to close the loophole. That’s an offensive adjustment, sure, but not the most pressing one on Lowry’s agenda.
That getting his teammates “involved from the jump” is something Lowry pinpoints as a struggle almost blots out the fact that DeRozan has long shared the responsibility of running the offense. Lowry allocating possessions elsewhere is hardly as daunting as the task faced by Russell Westbrook in adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, or even Chris Paul when he returns to the court alongside Harden. Lowry is touching the ball less and spends less time with it, but he’s shaved off only a little more than half of a complete dribble per touch.
Once Lowry’s shaky shooting evens out — he began the first 12 games of last season searching to find his way above 40 percent from the field — his new role will probably feel less like a restrictive casing. The only scarier reality for an injury-prone player near the end of his prime then suddenly playing less, shooting worse, and finishing with the fewest points on average in five years is his shots and possessions being reduced, all of which are happening to Lowry. He used to shoot through his occasional slumps; now, the Raptors are trying to make his down streaks less consequential.