OAKLAND, Calif. — The Toronto Raptors had just completed an evisceration of the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena on Wednesday night — doing so without Kawhi Leonard — when Kyle Lowry was asked about his team’s performance.
But even on this night, Lowry wasn’t satisfied.
“I’m sure we could have done better,” Lowry said. “I’m always holding my team to a higher standard and holding myself to a higher standard. We had some breakdowns.
“We just have to continue to get better.”
This is the conundrum that is Lowry, a player who has turned himself into a perennial All-Star and one of the faces of the league’s only international franchise, after bouncing around the NBA early in his career. But there are times that the pressure Lowry places on both his team and himself seems to get into his head.
He recently found himself in one of those stretches, going 4-for-28 across four games to start December, barely attempting any shots inside the 3-point line and looking nothing like his typical self.
Then the Raptors were forced to play without Leonard each of the past two nights because of a bruised right hip. And, in his absence, the old Lowry came roaring back.
“A guy like that,” Fred VanVleet said, “you never worry about him.”
First came Tuesday’s victory over the Clippers in Los Angeles, in which Lowry had 21 points, five rebounds and seven assists while making twice as many shots (eight) as he had in his prior four games.
Then, with Leonard watching in street clothes, Lowry followed that up by going for 23 points, five rebounds, 12 assists and three steals in Wednesday’s 113-93 rout of the Warriors — a win that pushed Toronto’s league-best record up to 23-7.
“Ten, 15 years ago, you guys would’ve wrote about it in the paper, and it would’ve passed over,” VanVleet said of Lowry’s slump. “Now, with social media, every day is the Super Bowl, and every moment is the biggest moment of our lives.
“It’s unusual to see a guy who plays at a high level like that go through slumps. But it comes and goes. It was just shot-making, really. It wasn’t like he wasn’t showing effort. He was probably frustrated he wasn’t making shots, but that comes and goes, and he’s right back where we want him, and where we need him to be.”
No team ever wants a player like Leonard to be watching from the bench, rather than playing on the court. But, in this instance, his absence couldn’t have come at a better time for Toronto. After Lowry went scoreless in Sunday’s home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, he said he needed to be more aggressive, and to make a conscious effort to attack the rim.
With Leonard out of the lineup, Lowry didn’t have a choice but to go on the attack if Toronto wanted to win either of these games against quality opponents on the road. And, in doing so, the Raptors point guard managed to get his mojo back.
“Him being out [means] a lot of things got to go through other people, and I think guys usually step up,” Lowry said. “I have been here a long time, and we have always said next man up.
“That is how we always treated everything.”
Rather than next man up, though, this was about one of Toronto’s leaders returning to the way everyone expects him to play on a regular basis.
It is this version of Lowry — the attacking, aggressive version — that allows the Raptors to unlock their highest ceiling. The acquisition of Leonard this summer saw Lowry’s best friend, DeMar DeRozan, be shipped to San Antonio in exchange. While on a personal level it was undoubtedly a blow, on a professional one it gave a Raptors team that has always floundered come playoff time the kind of game-changing talent it has never had before.
Acquiring Leonard alone, though, won’t be enough to finally put Toronto over the top after those years of playoff failures. Nor will the improvement from across the Raptors’ roster — from Serge Ibaka having one of his best seasons in years to Pascal Siakam taking large strides forward to the bench unit, which has struggled much of the season, beginning to round into form.
No, for these Raptors to write a different ending in the postseason this time around, they cannot have Lowry looking as passive and ineffective as he was last week, and like he has been at times in previous playoff runs.
When Lowry plays like he did the past two nights the Raptors are capable of beating anyone.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge [without Leonard], and I thought Kyle did a phenomenal job leading our team,” assistant coach Adrian Griffin said.
“He is an All-Star, no doubt about it.”