Mired in a five-game losing streak and minus the steady hands of Kyle Lowry, the Toronto Raptors entered Monday’s contest against the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers in desperate need of a victory and searching for the formula that led to one of the league’s hottest starts.
In Lowry’s absence, DeMar DeRozan temporarily reclaimed his former role as the team’s offensive-leader with a 35-point effort, the Raptors earned a 114-103 win over their hosts, and after leaving their losing streak in Philly, the reigning Atlantic Division champs confidently headed home to prepare for Wednesday’s visit from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But just 48 hours later, the Lowry-less Raptors were dealt a deflating dose of reality in a 120-112 loss to the Cavs despite playing arguably their best game in weeks. By the time that fans were filing out of the ACC, three players had finished with at least 25 points, Greivis Vasquez had done an admirable job of filling in as Toronto’s primary play-maker, and residents from every corner of Raptor-land realized that none of it would ever be enough to defeat the NBA’s best without Lowry on the floor.
Aside from the fact that it was unbelievably naieve to think that one win over a team that began the current campaign 1-17 was enough to do anything more than temporarily change the mood in Toronto’s locker room, the issues presently plaguing this team simply can’t be solved overnight.
At the front of the line, having Lowry serve as both the Raptors’ starting point guard as well as their main offensive weapon has provided endless opportunities for the entire team to suffer whenever he’s not playing well, and leaves Toronto offensively-rudderless the minute he gets hurt.
Before Lowry guided the Raptors through their recent rise to relevance, just the potential of losing DeRozan was enough to send panic through the streets of the CN Tower city. But now, Lowry is this team’s unquestioned leader, and it’s the potential of his long-term absence that keeps Raptor-fans awake at night.
Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to further develop his offensive game by feeding-off of Lowry’s ability to draw double teams, DeRozan has often used the point guard’s presence as a reason to step out of the spotlight despite leading the team with a career-best 18.4 points per game.
There’s been exceptions, such as DeRozan’s offensive output in each of Toronto’s last two games, but being this team’s primary point-getter is about much more than stuffing the stat-sheet. It’s about wanting the ball when the game is on the line and being the player that everyone is counting on to take the toughest shots. And until further notice, Lowry is that player.
Because general manager Masai Ujiri chose to keep Terrence Ross and remain idle prior to the recent trade deadline, offensive help isn’t coming. While we’ll never know if there were any real takers, it’s hard to believe that Ross couldn’t have been packaged with some future draft picks and traded for an offensive upgrade. After all, it’s not as if the Raptors have gained very much from either Ross or the draft.
Feared throughout a 13-4 November, respected in an 11-4 December, questioned during a 9-7 January, and criticized in a frustrating 4-7 February. For a franchise that’s finally worked it’s way out of the gutter, that’s a disturbing trend.
Fortunately, as one of the few quality teams in a weak Eastern Conference, the Raptors don’t have to worry that their problems will keep them out of the post-season.
But unless DeRozan permanently re-assumes his role as the player that everyone turns to when the stakes are at their highest and allows Lowry to focus on running the offence, advancing beyond the first two rounds of the playoffs will remain as unlikely as winning an NBA championship.