TORONTO -- After three consecutive playoff appearances and a six-game series against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, the Toronto Raptors are not too concerned that they won't match last year's franchise record of 56 wins in the regular season. At 50-31 with one game left in the season, everyone's focus is squarely on making another deep playoff run.
After missing the entire second half of the season recovering from a right wrist injury, point guard Kyle Lowry made his return to the lineup in last Wednesday's 105-102 victory over Detroit. Lowry didn't need any time acclimating himself, playing 42 minutes and scoring 27 points while dishing out 10 assists. "We didn't really know what to expect," head coach Dwane Casey said. "He played really well, like the old Kyle, like he hadn't missed a beat."
The Raptors made two moves near the trade deadline to bolster their roster, adding Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker in two separate moves that solidified their power forward position while giving the team a premier perimeter defender for the postseason.
But Lowry is the engine that drives this team.
In his second game back, a 96-94 win over Miami at home on Friday that kept Toronto in third place in the East, Lowry showed that getting back to full strength might take some time. In 36 minutes, Lowry shot 5-for-14 from the field, 1-for-5 from the free throw line and scored just 12 points. After the game, Lowry was in a positive mood, and shrugged off any talk that soreness in his right wrist after Wednesday's game was a contributing factor to his poor shooting night. "I just missed some shots tonight," Lowry said. "I felt like I had the rhythm, the ball just wasn't going in the rim … You're not going to have a great game every single night, it's still a work in progress for me."
In Lowry's absence, the Raptors went 14-7 and forged a new identity with their newfound toughness on the defensive end, which bodes well for the postseason. "It had some residual effects in terms of guys getting experience under their belts," Casey said of having other players step up while Lowry was injured. "I like our toughness. Do we have defensive lapses? Yes. But it's not from a lack of toughness."
During the 21-game stretch, DeMar DeRozan continued his splendid season on offense, where he's averaging 27.0 points per season. On Friday, he scored 38 points, the ninth game since the All-Star break in which he's poured in over 30 points. Cory Joseph filled in admirably as the starting point guard during that stretch, while Tucker and Ibaka fortified the team's defensive prowess.
With the roster at full strength, and Lowry back at the starting point guard position, the Raptors are optimistic, even if Casey admits that Cleveland is still the team to beat in the East. For DeRozan, having his backcourt mate back in the lineup has made a world of difference. "Just having his mind and body [back on the court] means a lot," DeRozan said. "A lot of time Kyle doesn't have to get it going to will us to victory."
That was evident during the team's playoff run last season. In the team's seven-game series win in the first round over the Indiana Pacers last season, Lowry made just 7-for-43 from three and shot 31.6 percent from the field. Yet, per NBA.com, in 66 minutes without Lowry on the floor, the Raptors were outscored by 19.6 points per 100 possessions in the series. The trend continued in another seven-game series win against the Miami Heat in the second round, when Lowry shot 19-for-49 from three, and 40.1 percent from the field. Per NBA.com, the Raptors were outscored by 44.1 points per 100 possessions in 68 minutes when Lowry was on the bench against Miami.
The numbers help explain the importance of Lowry even if he's having an off night from the field. As the point guard, he is able to facilitate and also alleviate some of the offensive pressure from DeRozan. In addition, Lowry's ability to create off the dribble helps create open looks on the perimeter and in the low post for his teammates. There's an intrinsic value to Lowry that makes the Raptors whole, and with the playoffs starting shortly, Toronto realizes that having Lowry back in the lineup means the differences between a potential early round exit or another deep run.
Lowry's presence also helps unlock fourth quarter lineups for the Raptors that could prove challenging for their opponents in the postseason. A Lowry-DeRozan-Patterson-Tucker-Ibaka unit can spread the floor and give Toronto a formidable defensive fivesome that can compete with any of the top teams in the East. If Lowry doesn't repeat his playoff shooting slump this time around, it's not far fetched to consider the Raptors the most worthy challenger to the Cavaliers in the East.