Have you ever been driving on the highway and thought you had an open lane to get to your destination faster, only to see your decision fail because of a traffic jam?
On the basketball court, that jam is Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry.
For players who believe they've set the best screen or for those looking to seize a wide-open lane to the basket, Lowry is usually the one putting a stop to those potential opportunities. That was the case twice in Game 1 against the Brooklyn Nets—first, when Lowry drew a charge on Mason Plumlee in the first quarter:
And later, when Lowry caused Paul Pierce to get called for a moving screen in the third quarter:
Drawing offensive fouls was Lowry's secret weapon this season—the best in his eight-year career, during which he averaged career highs in points and assists per game (17.9 and 7.4, respectively). In fact, there was no one better at drawing offensive fouls—it wasn't even close.
Eighty-four. That's how many offensive fouls Lowry drew this season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Derek Fisher was second with 55. To put into perspective how good Lowry was, the league leader over the previous five seasons drew an average of 56.2 offensive fouls.
In addition, Lowry was second this season in charges taken with 36, right behind Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (39). With Lowry leading the way defensively on the perimeter for the Raptors this season, the team improved to 10th in defensive rating, compared to 20th in 2012-13.
"He's tough as nails mentally and physically," an NBA scout said. "Lowry is strong, has great lateral movement and fearless—great assets for a great defender. He doesn't back down from anyone and loves a challenge."
Lowry's defensive accomplishments this season have contributed to him being one of the most attractive free agents looking ahead to the summer. Lowry is hoping to get a four-year deal with a starting rate of $12 million as a free agent, according to one source. Returning to the Raptors is a suitable option for Lowry because they offer a great fit and supporting cast, and they have his Bird rights. Toronto fans adore the 28-year-old, including the team's TV color commentator, Jack Armstrong.
"(Lowry is) just off the charts," he said during a recent broadcast. "He's in every play because he just competes."
So how has Lowry become one of the game's best defensive point guards? To get an inside look at how he's developed his unique skill, Bleacher Report spoke with Lowry and several people who have assisted and observed him as he's become a top defender in the league.
Lowry has always been "tough, relentless and gritty," as he defines his defense. That was the main reason that the Memphis Grizzlies selected him with the 24th pick in the 2006 NBA draft. But his hard-nosed mentality was also somewhat of a hindrance in his first few years in the league, as he struggled to make his mark.
"If you ask him, he'll admit that his stubbornness and his toughness was negative," his longtime trainer Joe Abunassar said. "Now he's more open and doesn't argue about everything."
After several injuries slowed him down in 2012-13—a sports hernia that required surgery in May 2012, and then a strained abductor and lower-back issues during the season—he was thinking big entering last summer. As Abunassar put it, "He wanted to be an All-Star this year. Kyle made the commitment to take it to another level—his attention to detail."
That included starting his first ever all-summer-long cardio plan to keep his weight down—and studying game film a lot more closely than he had in previous years.
"I really wanted to get to the playoffs," Lowry said. "I really wanted to do everything I could possibly do to get to this point, and prove the right choices were made by trading for me and keeping me, and not trading me back somewhere else. I had an off year last year and I wanted to prove that it was just one little hiccup in the road; it wasn't who I was."
The NBA scout has also noticed Lowry's maturation. Think advanced knowledge mixed in with an already natural defensive instinct—that paints a scary picture.
"In order for a guy to defend that well, he has to study his opponents. Every night in this league, guards have their work cut out for them," the scout said. "He's really worked on his game, he's in much better condition and plays with a chip on his shoulder."
Lowry has also continued his upward track on the defensive end by working with NBA veteran Chauncey Billups, who has a similar build to Lowry, and former player Tyronn Lue, who's now the defensive assistant for the Los Angeles Clippers.
"Those are the kind of guys that Kyle surrounds himself with in the offseason, which helps him out a lot," Abunassar said.
The mentor Lowry has been around the most this season, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, said he's become more technical in his preparation, including being a "student" of scouting reports. Casey, a blue-collar defensive specialist, noted that his point guard has gotten better as a help defender and is more disciplined than he was in 2012-13—their first season together.
"Last year, he would venture off and gamble a lot," Casey said. "But this year, he's been very good with the team approach as far as defense is concerned, being in the right place. He's like a computer. He knows exactly what the other team is doing, he knows their calls, he knows the tendencies of each player."
Casey went as far as to compare Lowry to two legendary point guards.
"He reminds me a lot of Jason Kidd and Gary Payton as far as him knowing exactly what the other team is doing," he said. "Kyle is probably one of the most intelligent players I've been around in a while."
Lowry has also impressed his teammate DeMar DeRozan with his work ethic.
"At his position, he studies every single guy on the team," DeRozan said. "Whether it's in transition or in the half court, he's anticipating the next move, and nine times out of 10 he's going to get there."
In making strides as a help defender, Lowry has gotten quicker at reading plays from far corners on the court—for example, drives from the opposite baseline—and stepping in to take the charge.
"I think it's a game-changer," Lowry said. "I'm not a shot-blocker, but a charge is just as important as a blocked shot."
This season, Lowry was the only point guard in the top five in most charges taken. Following Cousins and Lowry, the list included Shane Battier (28), Monta Ellis (22) and Donatas Motiejunas (22). Even at 6'0", Lowry has no fears of putting his body in harm's way.
"He's tough enough where he sacrifices his body there in front of a guy going 100 miles an hour to the basket, which says a lot about his toughness," Casey said.
What's also unique about Lowry's setup taking charges is that instead of running into place in front of the restricted area, he'll usually jump into position to get to the spot faster before the penetrator takes off for the basket. In today's NBA game of speedier point guards and quicker half-court offenses, that saved half-second matters.
"It's timing, placement, reaction," Lowry said. "The NBA game is such a fast game, you just have to be there. You have to be able to anticipate; you have to be able to notice what's going to happen two seconds or three passes before it happens."
Lowry's jump into position to take a charge also enables him to set his feet faster and hold his ground. Once he does that and the opposing player leans into him, he's able to maintain his stance even at 6'0" because he has a strong base at 205 pounds. And he's smart in that he doesn't take the full hit, especially if it's from a center. Lowry is able to lean just enough backward—again, because of his solid foundation—to absorb the contact and fall without feeling too much force. And he always has one arm already extended behind him to brace his fall.
"There's a feel for it of taking the contact, falling back and not getting hurt doing it. There's an art to that," Casey said. "He does a great job with hitting the floor without getting hurt. So he's got it down to a hard science."
DeRozan called it Lowry's "dog mentality."
"That's the definition of Kyle Lowry if you ask me," he said. "Man, just his hunger and the passion to be great. He's one hell of a person...He's willing to do it all and lay it out there on the line, so you've got to respect somebody like that."
While standing in the way of a bruising center can be intimating to most players in today's softer, offense-driven NBA, Lowry said there's never been one charge that left him in pain the next day. "Just the NBA game," he said. "It's a rough game."
Lowry also has his way with opposing big men in pick-and-rolls.
"Defensively, he does a great job of anticipating screens, and that's probably one of his best gifts," Casey said.
Facing the opposing point guard, Lowry tends to leave a good amount of separation so he can keep his man at bay, while slightly turning his head back and forth to see where the big man is coming from to set a screen. His focus is the big man—because typically at the top of the key, the opposing point guard waits for the screen. So Lowry takes that time to survey the situation behind him. This is where hours of studying film comes into play, knowing his opponent.
"You know who you're playing against; you know what they want to do," Lowry said. "It's all part of the game plan."
Once Lowry has a feel for which direction the big man is heading and sees the screen approaching, he'll look to position his body in that direction like he's boxing out to try to push the big man away a bit, forcing the point guard to reload. Lowry's strong base and fluid lateral movement help here. Lowry also employs this clever maneuver in an attempt to get the big man to slide around him to execute the screen, which can result in a moving screen.
"Kyle has the ability to see ahead a couple plays, sees a couple movements ahead," Abunassar said. "When he was a second- or third-year player, he couldn't do that."
Most of the time, the screen comes too suddenly for Lowry to box out the big man. But then what he typically does is ride the coattails, so to speak, of the big man and cut right into the point of contact of the screen, taking the hit, looking to get thrown off and hoping for a call from the referees. While most point guards go clearly around or under the screen, simply brushing off of the big man with hardly any contact, Lowry plays hardball with the screener.
"That's just plain smart," the scout said. "Centers are the least mobile, so he engages them. Most small guys shy away from contact, but he encourages it. Tough guy."
Even if the big man is holding a solid screen, Lowry's contact, bump-off and stagger away from the play with his arms flailing sometimes gets him the call. Perhaps those are his tricks—he admitted he has some but wouldn't say what they are. Interestingly, most of the time when Lowry draws an offensive foul in a pick-and-roll, the attention quickly turns to the big man's wrongdoing. The little man's tactics are overlooked.
Regardless, Lowry said referees are too smart to outwit, and that realistic contact is everything.
"You can't try to trick a referee out. You've got to get to the spot," he said. "You've got to make sure you're doing the right things because you don't want to be known as the guy who just tries to trick referees or do things to trick the game. You want to respect the game and play the game the right way."
In addition to Lowry's craftiness, a key advantage is how big men carelessly set screens. Many don't hold them long enough. So when Lowry takes the hit, it further accentuates the big man's mishap—and that stands out to the referees.
"Screen-setting is a lost art in basketball," the scout said. "Many guys don't know how to set screens. They don't get their feet set, but there are also instances where the offensive ball-handler doesn't allow his big guys to get set because he's trying to get a jump on his defender and turn the corner. That results in the big guy setting a moving screen."
This season, Lowry said he's benefited from Casey's shell, tag-cutter and tag-roller drills during practice. The "tag" simulations have players run around different screens with the objective of being close enough to touch their defender the entire time.
Lowry and Co. will need to be mindful of those strategies throughout the series against Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston, who combined for 34 points, seven assists and only two turnovers in the Raptors' Game 1 loss. But being down is nothing new to Lowry, who had his own productive game of 22 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. This season, he mentally fought through constant trade rumors, while the expectation for the Raptors was extinction after the Rudy Gay transaction.
Finishing as the third seed speaks volumes to what Lowry and his teammates are all about.
"I just worry about getting better as an individual," he said. "I didn't worry about the trade rumors or anything. I just went out there and played my game and didn't let anything affect me. And I have a great group of guys, and we all just banded together this season, and we got 48 wins."
And soon, perhaps the franchise's first playoff series win since 2001.