With Kyle Lowry nearing his return, just how good can the full-strength Raptors be?
The All-Star point guard is on the verge of getting back on the court with a different, deeper team
Kyle Lowry will be back in the Toronto Raptors lineup Tuesday against the Miami Heat. The All-Star point guard has been out since Nov. 8 with a broken hand, and in that time the defending champions have gone 9-2 despite also being without big man Serge Ibaka for all but the most recent game, a blowout win against the Utah Jazz on Sunday.
Toronto might be the best story in the NBA. Only the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers have better records, and only the Bucks have a better net rating. The Raptors came into the season with questions about their shooting, and they are second in 3-point percentage (and seventh in frequency of 3-point attempts) with the fifth-best offense in the league. On the other end they have been even better, holding opponents to 102.3 points per 100 possessions, just a few percentage points more than the Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee, who are tied at No. 1.
It is not just that Pascal Siakam (25.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 39.0 percent from 3-point range) and Fred VanVleet (since Lowry's injury: 21.2 points, 7.5 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 2.4 steals, 40.2 percent from 3-point range) have answered the call. It is that the early-season concerns about depth now look ludicrous. Terence Davis, an undrafted guard Toronto signed after one summer league game, has been one of the best rookies in his class. Chris Boucher, the 2019 G League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, played a huge role in the Raptors' road win against the Lakers and continued to produce like an above-average bench big after that. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had logged just four garbage-time minutes before Lowry got hurt and has become a reliable part of the rotation, defending all five positions and providing energy.
"I think it's gonna be a big benefit for us," Toronto coach Nick Nurse said, via the Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstat. "I think we've developed some guys that we know we can use, that we aren't afraid to use now, especially me. We've saved a few miles on some veterans' legs, I keep saying."
Nurse won Eastern Conference coach of the month on Monday, an easy choice given how the Raptors responded when tested. A fifth of the way through the season, they have exceeded every expectation even though they haven't been close to full strength. When they are, the question will be just how far they can take this.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Toronto will eventually hit some kind of ceiling. As efficient as the Raptors are in transition, as pretty as it looks when their offense is humming, they relied on Kawhi Leonard's individual brilliance to get them out of tough spots in last season's playoffs. Siakam is putting up MVP-candidate numbers and genuinely could win Most Improved Player for a second straight season, but being the No. 1 guy against elite defensive teams in the playoffs will be a new challenge. If they meet the enormous Philadelphia 76ers, they likely cannot survive a poor series from VanVleet, who struggled against them last time. If they meet the Bucks, they will need their fleet of athletic forwards to approximate Leonard's defense against Giannis Antetokounmpo, with the vastly improved OG Anunoby potentially leading the charge.
It is not unreasonable to be skeptical that Toronto will still have the statistical profile of a true contender after 82 games and be able to keep all this up beyond that. It is possible, though, that the Raptors haven't even shown the best version of themselves yet. In the seven games before the one in which Lowry broke his hand, he averaged 39 minutes, with Nurse sometimes using only an eight-man rotation. He is returning to a different, deeper and even more confident team, one that could be a buyer rather than a seller at the trade deadline. Dismissing Toronto might not be a wise move. It certainly hasn't been lately.
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