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Kyle Lowry's Quiet, Dominant Season Comes with 1 Real Concern
BOSTON — Forget about his dead-eye three-point shot, pick-and-roll wizardry or general relentlessness on every possession. Nothing is more impressive (and potentially worrisome) about Kyle Lowry’s season than the minutes.
Entering Friday night's 101-94 victory over the Boston Celtics, the All-Star floor general was averaging an astounding 37.4 per game. If that keeps up, he’ll be the first point guard in nearly a decade to average that many minutes after celebrating his 30th birthday. (Allen Iverson was the last to do it).
So far, it’s been plenty worthwhile for the Toronto Raptors. Over a quarter of the way into his 11th season, Lowry is averaging 21.3 points with a 60.4 true shooting percentage—both are career highs.
“I mean, he’s only gonna get better...That’s the beauty of the old man,” Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said following the win over Boston.
Lowry was far and away the best player on TD Garden’s floor Friday, scoring a season-high 34 points on just 18 shots. When the Celtics cut Toronto’s lead down to four with under a minute left, Lowry drew a key shooting foul on Al Horford while launching what would’ve been his ninth three of the night.
But again, it came in 36 minutes. His Friday performance followed a 38-minute showing the night before against the Minnesota Timberwolves and 40-minute outing Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
As many minutes as Lowry is playing, and as well as he's performing, he still seems to be overlooked in terms of national attention. He’s the primary reason Toronto is the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, yet the two-time All-Star is rarely mentioned in discussions about the best players at his position.
Lowry’s game isn’t flashy, and he began this year in the shadow of DeRozan’s unprecedented artistry from mid-range. He doesn’t average a triple-double or possess enough gravity to make defenders pick him up at half court (even though they should). But statistics have long struggled to quantify Lowry’s all-around value.
“I don’t know why he’d be overlooked,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. “I think he’s one of the best point guards in basketball. ”
He sets teammates up in a variety of situations, with assist and turnover rates that were both better than his career average entering Friday night’s game, per Basketball-Reference.com. Terrence Ross and DeMarre Carroll are way more accurate three-point shooters when Lowry passes them the ball.
Few players in the league are more conscious of where everybody is when they’re dribbling off a screen. Lowry makes split-second decisions look easy, and few ball-handlers can spot a defensive mistake quicker.
"I didn’t know how great of a passer he was until I got here," Raptors rookie Pascal Siakam said.
ESPN.com's real plus-minus pegs him as the NBA’s 10th-best player and fourth-best point guard—only Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry are ahead.
Still, looking through a big-picture lens, Lowry’s towering minutes may hurt the Raptors come playoff time.
“It’s a big concern. We watch it. We try to keep it down as much as we can, but at the same time we’re trying to win games,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “We’re smart when we use him in practice and shootarounds and stuff like that, but we’re very cognizant of minutes and his usage.”
Lowry agrees, even though he’s not thrilled about the possibility of extended rest down the line.
“We’ve been trying to cut my minutes down,” he said. “Whenever [the coaches] want me to sit down I’ma do it, but right now I love to play the game of basketball, man. Why wouldn’t you want to be out there with your teammates in a great environment like this? I love Boston, and that fanbase is unbelievable, so you don’t feel tired; you just go play.”
To the surprise of nobody, Toronto’s offense is never worse than when Lowry is off the floor. And for the second year in a row, one of Casey’s best lineups sees Lowry beside four reserves; he’s the head of the snake, a hostile scorer who’s equally effective flying around off the ball as he is dictating tempo with it in his hands.
What makes his minutes even more impressive (and, again, a bit of a concern) is the fact Toronto—long known for its slow-and-steady, hero-ball offense—has upped its pace and is attacking more in transition this year.
Last season, the Raptors ranked 29th in seconds per possession after they grabbed a defensive rebound. This year, they’re 17th. It helps explain why their offense is second-best in the NBA, and according to Synergy Sports, Lowry leads the way as Toronto’s main weapon in the open floor.
An imposing 36.6 percent of his shots are launched in the first nine seconds of the shot clock, up from 29.9 percent last season. Gamble trying to steal the ball away on a simple inbounds and Lowry will make you pay.
Toronto’s offense is the best it’s ever looked, and there’s no bigger reason than Lowry. Whether he gets his due or is never properly valued by the general NBA-watching public, the Raptors will only go as far as he takes them this season.
But until the games matter more, Toronto may need to do a better job reducing its superstar's load just a bit.