Raptors begin to assemble the Leonard-Lowry puzzle with the assembled duo


TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors have a 15-6 lead with just one of their two best players, Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, and – including the awkward 104-101 of Tuesday over the Atlanta Hawks – 16-6 while playing with both.

Does that tell us anything? Maybe this says that it takes only a superstar and a cast of reliable support to win regular season games in the NBA. Maybe that says the Raptors are a very good and very deep team that can find ways to win, no matter the people who are on hand on a given night. And you might say that when it comes to the potential of Toronto's top tandem, we still have a lot to learn.

Unfortunately for coach Nick Nurse, these learning opportunities were few and far between. Tuesday's win ended a stretch of 14 games in which Leonard and Lowry never played together. So far, the pair have split the floor in just over half of Toronto's 43 games.

"I think it has been very little, if you want my honest opinion," said Nurse in shootaround his team Tuesday morning. "They are our two best players and we need our two best players on the floor."

Must go without saying. Despite all the good stories the Raptors have had this season, such as the emergence of Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka's silent efficacy, Norman Powell's energetic and powerful comeback and Danny Green's general contributions, this basketball team will suffocate or thrive in the game of Leonard and Lowry.

And the first returns were encouraging. By December 9, Leonard and Lowry had played with a rating of more than 10.7% when they were together on the court – which could be better, could be worse. He was at least on the rise. After some initial sobbing, it seemed like they were developing something.

So they traded inactive for a month. Lowry with a stubborn back injury that turned out to be far worse than he'd expected, Leonard with intermittent nights to calm the physical deterioration that basketball games will endure. This was not the plan, particularly after a training in which Nurse prioritized as much time as possible for the two. But when does everything happen as planned?

"It's luck. I'm not sure if it's good or bad, "said the nurse recently." It's just a coincidence, actually. It kind of goes along with the territory, especially for us this year. "

When the nurse is asked to praise Leonard or Lowry, he often shares opposing thoughts. He likes Lowry's rhythm, the way he speeds up the game. As he is always pushing the action, coming in and out quickly, making the page of possession faster than anyone else on the floor. And he likes Leonard's firmness, the way he slows down the game. As he spins the ball in his hands and makes the world stand still, examining and examining meticulously before dissecting who is in front of him.

And maybe that helps explain why the pair took some time to find chemistry with each other earlier this season. It's not as if the Raptors were playing badly when they split the floor. But it was not exactly ballet. Sometimes Lowry would take care of and force the problem, leaving Leonard a little lost as to how he fit in. In others, Leonard would have the ball and a defender isolated before him, while Lowry sneaked into a corner beyond the arc and waited. a result.

"I think we want to see a few more minutes together, a bit more cohesion," said Nurse. "It's very simple when one of them is on and one of them is off. It becomes a bit more difficult, in a good way [when they share the floor.] It is a good problem that you have two choices to make – who is bringing, who is not bringing.

"And I think there are some rhythm problems that we need to get over a little bit. I would like our rhythm to be a bit better when the two of them are on the ground, but this is more for me, or for us, just to have a little more urgency to get on the floor and play a little faster. "

Take the game on Tuesday, for example. During one of Toronto's first offensive offenses, Lowry and Leonard seemed trapped in a self-denial contest. Leonard glanced at Lowry. They Lowry passed his own look and passed it to Leonard. Then back to Lowry. Then to Leonard. And then the clock ticked off.

Yeah, the duo's first in a month was not good. Lowry finished his first eight minutes without a point or an assist, while Leonard was quieter than an assertive and one to open the game. When Lowry left, the Hawks climbed four.

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The next spell, in the middle of the second half, was slightly better offensively, when Lowry met Leonard in the corner by three, before Leonard devised a quick break that resulted in Lowry setting Ibaka to his own three. But the Raptors' defense was porous and Atlanta got what they wanted at the end of the Raptors. Again, the Hawks won the Leonard-Lowry minutes, this time at six.

With the pair dividing the track to start the second half, things seemed to follow in a similar direction. But after a difficult start, Leonard and Lowry took turns, shifting positions by three, and then Siakam got involved in the game, which may be the most important development of all. By the time Lowry was summoned back to his sloping position and towel on the court before the Raptors bench, Toronto finally won a Leonard-Lowry race, 19-13.

And they beat the latter, which mattered most, overtaking the Hawks by two after Lowry returned with seven minutes remaining. The Raptors never looked really good tonight by themselves. But that was when Leonard and Lowry looked the best they could – forcing the pace, jumping on the defensive tracks, forcing the plays, creating visuals for the teammates and winning the game.

That last part happened with 25 seconds remaining, when Leonard found his sixth robbery of the night and began a quick break. While Leonard ran with John Collins on his hip, Lowry set a devastating choice, knocking Collins to the ground and releasing his teammate. From there, all five Raptors hit the ball in succession, culminating in an Ibaka dunk and a Toronto lead that would not be abandoned.

It may be the best thing the Raptors have done all night. And it came at the most critical moment of the game.

This is important. Although it is only January, and the Raptors are still well within the territory of figuring things out, it is also January, and the Raptors should probably have more discovered now than they. The nurse needs to know how her team will respond at crucial times with Leonard and Lowry on the floor. Players need to get to know each other. Your courage needs to be tested.

Considering that 26 of the 39 Toronto final matches will be played against .500 or less, the Raptors may only have a few more nights to do so. You can run your delayed game sets over and over again in the practice field, but it is impossible to replicate the pressure and intensity felt under the lights. In those moments, when the live rounds fly, the ball will be in the hands of Leonard or Lowry.

"Probably the biggest thing is we have to be able to run into the crisis with the two guys out there," said Nurse. "We need to know where we're going, where the ball is going, where the shoot goes, what the plays are and what the special situations are at the end of the games we run. … It's huge. It becomes a big factor in the playoff moment. "

Playoff time is fast approaching. And in time before the playoffs, the Raptors have a lot to learn.


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