The Lingering Toronto Question

Written by: Noah

        We’ve been here before. The Milwaukee Bucks aren’t the first team to exploit Toronto’s biggest weakness, though they just might be the perfect team to point it out in a subtle way. Milwaukee doesn’t have quite the upset potential that, say, the 2013-14 Nets had when they knocked off Toronto, and I feel I should preface this by saying that the Raptors are the better team and are expected to come out on top. As we’ve seen, though, expectations don’t win playoff series. Giannis Antetokounmpo and company are doing their damndest to prove just that:

        This was the Greek Freak’s first major playoff test: a Game 1 on the road against a top-10 defense, and he rose to the occasion, as stars do. Credit to surprising performances out of Milwaukee’s supporting cast, particularly their rookies, but we can agree that Giannis had to do Giannis things in order for the Bucks to win Game 1. On the other hand, Toronto’s best did not play like they needed to, and further proved to critics that this Toronto team is and has always been a team that doesn’t have an NBA Finals ceiling. Milwaukee is certainly not at that point yet, either, but Antetokounmpo is a player that can one day give a team a championship ceiling. He is quickly ascending the ranks among the NBA’s best, and is exactly the kind of explosive all-around talent that currently exposes Toronto’s biggest weakness. There is a certain, generally unfailing truth to the phrase, “[Team] will only go as far as [Best Player] takes them.” If the past two, going on three, postseasons have demonstrated anything, it’s that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can’t take them that far.

        But why such hate for the unconventional duo? They compliment each other exceptionally well, however counter-intuitive their relationship may seem. Lowry is the ideal waterbug point guard (aside from Chris Paul, who can simply be described as the ideal point guard): heady passer, varied scorer, and is a pest on defense. In tandem with the strictly buckets-only DeRozan, they make up a top-three backcourt in the league. As exclusive as that sounds, they really are in esteemed company: Among every backcourt to ever start in league history, the Lowry-DeRozan pairing (averaging 49.7 PPG together) is the fourth highest scoring-wise, behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum this season (50.0 PPG), Jerry West and Gail Goodrich in 1971-72 (51.7 PPG), and the Splash Brothers of last year (52.4 PPG). Nothing to scoff at, and certainly nothing worth changing, right? This is one hell of a nitpick, but this is the difference between going home in early-May and bringing a title to the Six: Is your best player going to be reliable in the postseason? Your answer shouldn’t be “Maybe.”

        Dating back to the 2014 postseason (excluding 2015 due to injury), around half of the games he’s played in, he’s played similarly to or only marginally better than Monday’s Game 1 performance. Going (rather subjectively, but still) off of metrics such as plus/minus and Game Score as well as basic counting stats and efficiency, a significant amount of his playoff performances (again, excluding 2015 due to being hampered by injury) can be firmly placed in the “sub-par” category. Upon reviewing the spreadsheet below, I think you’ll find that these games belong where they belong:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1bvap3fcfPEAVlv6xXh0K8WROjbKOUG3AWbXtlz1L-es/edit#gid=0

        Final averages of those games: 10.4 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.6 SPG, 27.4% from the field, 11.3% from three, 64.7% from the line, -8.7 +/-, 4.7 Game Score (average is 10.0), and 4.2 fouls per game. It should also be noted that in those games, Toronto is 2-11. To be fair, anyone can cherrypick games to paint a picture. My point is that these games account for a significant portion of his playoff career in Toronto. It doesn’t get much better even if we include the 2015 series against Washington. If that isn’t just a little bleak, I don’t know what is.

Now, as troubling as the nature of springtime Kyle Lowry can be, two important things can still be gathered from that:

He has the ability to make adjustments that open up roadblocks from previous nights, because, criticisms aside, Lowry is an All-NBA level talent. He’s good for a bounce-back game or two. If it seems like he comes around eventually, he usually does, if only temporarily. For every Game 1 type of performance he has, he responds (as well as the similarly streaky DeRozan) with a Game 2:

        Bounce-back Lowry is kind of a thing, if not 100% reliable: In the games immediately following a poor showing, he averaged 19.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 5.3 APG, 1.3 SPG, shooting 32.1% from the field, 30.4% from three, 84.5% from the line to go with a +3.1 +/-, 13.4 Game Score, and 3.2 fouls per game, with Toronto going 8-4 in those games. That still doesn’t sound amazing, but I should note that some of these “bounce-back games” that came after one bad game serve a dual purpose as both a bounce-back game as well as an already-noted bad game (see Games 5-7 of the Indiana series as well as Game 2 of the Cleveland series). Just being fair. Just for kicks, without counting those already-mentioned games, Lowry averaged 23.5 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 4.6 APG on 41-38-88 shooting with a +6.8 +/-, 16.75 Game Score, and 3.2 fouls per game, with the Raps going 6-2 in those games. If still nothing (aside from team record) stands out in a particularly good way, that should tell you something about Toronto’s best player.

2. Sometimes, those roadblocks re-appear, and it ends up being costly for the Raptors. If Toronto places such heavy reliance on big performances out of Lowry as well as DeRozan, their championship hopes are in jeopardy. In analyzing Lowry’s postseason resume in Toronto, it’s becoming more and more evident that he’s more of a wild card rather than the consistent force they need. Again, this is a very, very big nit to pick, but this team isn’t one stands favorably against the likes of Cleveland, let alone any of the top Western Conference teams, if we’re also looking at theoretical Finals match-ups. With spotty performances out of their top dogs, potential Finals match-ups will simply remain theoretical.

        Toronto has been a team on the cusp for the past few years now. Creating separation from the second tier of teams and moving into that top tier is arguably the biggest challenge a franchise can possibly navigate through. The prospect of both maximizing the potential of the roster they have (and even that may not be enough) and not only opening, but keeping that championship window open is damn near impossible, and that is absolutely terrifying for any team trying to accomplish those tasks. From top to bottom, the Raptors have an excellent rotation, and the additions of P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka mid-season have proven to be great ones. Title odds can increase through savvy moves like these, but it goes back to having a championship ceiling. Should Toronto look to move out of the shadow of the defending champs as well as stave off the rest of the East, they’ll have to make that last leap. It all starts at the top.

Sources: BasketballReference.com

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