The Raptors’ season so far without their former point guard Kyle Lowry.
Special feature to On Point Basketball by Arjun Ram
The Toronto Raptors extinguished the flames, coming back from down 12 at halftime to beat the Miami Heat 110-106 this past Tuesday.
Led by Gary Trent Jr. with 33 points, the Raptors outscored the Heat in the third and fourth quarters to culminate the win.
For the Heat, this is their ninth straight game without starting point guard Kyle Lowry. The former Raptor has been out due to personal reasons, missing out the opportunity to return to Scotiabank Arena for the first time since he departed through a sign and trade deal.
And although the Heat started 5-1 since his last game, they’ve dropped their last two. Still, they sit as a high seed in the Eastern conference.
The Raptors, on the other hand, are playing their first season without Lowry since 2012. As Toronto hits the halfway mark of the season, what can be said about the impact of Lowry’s absence on a team and fan perspective?
The Raptors held a comparatively better record this past January than last, going 10-6 in 2022 and 7-9 in 2021.
At the moment, they’re eighth in the league, situating themselves as a play-in tournament team.
“I like where they’re headed,” said TSN commentator for the Raptors Jack Armstrong. “At some point in time Lowry was going to leave — whether it be to retire or go (into) free agency. And to me, I think the transition has been a lot better than I ever thought it could have been.”
Leading the way for Toronto, has been point guard Fred VanVleet. VanVleet, or ‘Steady Freddy’ as he’s affectionately known by fans, has prominently asserted himself as a driving force for the team’s progression.
VanVleet can do it all. His high minutes — currently ranked first in the league at 38.6 per game — have translated to career highs in points and assists. On the defensive end, VanVleet ranks seventh in the league in steals at 1.7 per game.
“I think you’ve seen empowerment in Fred VanVleet,” Armstrong said. “(He’s) a guy that truly looks around and says ‘This is my team to run now’.”
In addition to VanVleet, Pascal Siakam has further developed his game. Although the 2020 All-Star battled injuries and sub-par play in the season that followed, he has enhanced multiple parts of his game this year, averaging career highs in assists, steals and total rebounds.
Armstrong praised such, saying he’s “Seen a lot of growth in Pascal Siakam.”
The duo had a highly proficient January, each tallying 325 points and 100 assists. They joined the elite company of Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon, as well as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen as the only duos to do so.
But, the NBA is not composed of two-men lineups. Their supporting cast of OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. should also not go unnoticed. Their aggressiveness on the offensive end has led to relentless scoring — each averaging career highs. Trent Jr. has showcased his scoring abilities, especially where he has scored thirty or more five consecutive times.
“I think there has been great progress from all those guys,” Armstrong commended. “Sometimes, you have to step out of the shadows of those great players and forge your own path…I think those guys have done a really good job of showing what they’re made of, what their talent level is and what they’ve learned from Kyle.”
On the other hand, Precious Achiuwa is a Raptor newcomer — acquired in the Lowry sign and trade deal. The 6 ‘8” centre has utilized his defensive versatility effectively for the Raptors, with opponents shooting 50.8% inside 6 feet, which is a difference of 11.5% from their averages — consequent of his suffocating interior defence.
Armstrong believes the Achiuwa acquisition will prove efficacious in the long run, despite his offensive inconsistency.
“He has a few holes in his game: he struggles finishing around the basket and has to get better at shooting the ball from the free-throw line,” Armstrong observed. “But when I look at his willingness as a defender; his switchability and great lateral quickness; his tenacity and his toughness… just the energy that he brings and his ability to run the floor hard and effectively. He’s still learning the game…but I can see potential.”
Coming off the bench last year, Chris Boucher’s prowess on the defensive end integrated well with his offensive game. It was his breakout season, averaging 13.6 points per game and shooting a career high 51.4% from the field.
After a superb training camp, all signals were pointing towards the continuation of elite play.
“He had a tremendous training camp; he was playing great for them,” Armstrong said. “Then he got hurt, and that set him back… and it takes time to jump on a moving train.”
Boucher shot an abysmal 37.35% from the field and 19.7% from three over the course of the first two months of the season — all while averaging around six points per game. His pick and roll numbers have dropped significantly, averaging 34.1% this season compared to 50% last season.
His chemistry with Lowry led to efficiency, scoring 58.7% of his two-point field attempts from his distributions last season. However, the guard-big man duo of Boucher and VanVleet fell short of replicating the efficiency early in the season.
“I thought he really pressed, and he tried too hard,” said Armstrong. “ But what I see now is a guy that’s comfortable and knows he’s going to play.”
Boucher has since ameliorated his uncharacteristic stats, increasing his points production to nine per game and around 12 per game over the last two months. He has also improved his two-point field goal percentage from VanVleet’s passes, averaging 51.4%.
The impact of Lowry’s absence on the Raptors’ play can go either way. Some have thrived with newfound opportunities, and others are still adapting to a refurbished system.
The passionate fandom, however, remains unwavering.
Maneet Baldesha is a 22 year old McMaster student. Her avid Raptor support has persisted since her high school days, where she was first introduced to the team by her sister.
Baldesha attended a game at Scotiabank Arena in November of last year – when fans were permitted to attend games at a higher attendance – only to come across familiar views.
“It felt like he (Lowry) was still there,” Baldesha said. “There were a lot of people still wearing his jerseys.”
However, Baldesha did notice a change in energy amongst fans in recognition of the team’s future.
“You also felt this new type of energy because of the transition to the new players, and the old players now taking the leadership roles.”
She continued, saying, “I think Kyle Lowry understood it was his time to go, and Freddy and Siakam have understood they’ve had to step up — and they have been. I think the fans have had enough time to accept what’s going on and bring the energy for the new team.”
Baldesha also credited Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes for the energized fanbase. The first round pick was selected fourth overall by the Raptors unexpectedly, as fans were convinced the Orlando Magic’s Jalen Suggs would be chosen.
“It was really fun to watch draft night,” she said. “The pick stunned everyone for sure.”
Currently averaging around 15 points and seven rebounds, Barnes’ play has been rewarded, earning a spot as a rising star for the 2022 All-Star Weekend. His personable and ecstatic character has also captured the fans’ love.
“He’s just a fun person; he has so much energy that goes on and off the court,” said Baldesha. “Without Scottie, we would have definitely felt the void of that energy that Lowry had but because Scottie is who he is, he’s been able to maintain that energy.”
The future of the Toronto Raptors came into question once Masai Ujiri pulled the trigger on the Lowry sign and trade. The longest tenured Raptor was a part of the 2019 championship team, and set records for the franchise in assists, steals, three-pointers and triple-doubles.
“Lowry will always be the GROAT (Greatest Raptor Of All Time),” Baldesha said. “But it’s just the understanding that all good things must come to an end.”