Raptors, Kyle Lowry Shouldn't Panic, but Star PG Must Be Better vs. Magic

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 14, 2019

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 13:  Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors reacts after a call by an official in the first half during Game One of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoff against the Orlando Magic at Scotiabank Arena on April 13, 2019 in Toronto, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Saturday's Game 1 loss to the Orlando Magic wasn't the end of the world for Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors. But for a player and franchise haunted by the specter of playoff disappointment, it was the last thing they needed.

D.J. Augustin drilled a game-winning three from the top of the arc to give the upstart Magic a 104-101 win over the host Raptors, and the fact that most of the attention after the buzzer fell squarely on Lowry and his scoreless 34 minutes (0-of-7 from the field, 0-of-6 from deep, 0-of-2 from the foul line) says a lot about the widespread angst attached to this Toronto team.

Toronto won 58 games and finished the season with four different starters than it fielded a year ago, which made the narrative of unavoidable playoff disappointment (particularly in Game 1s, in which the Raps are now 2-14) feel forced. This was a different group, led by different talent. Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol and Danny Green weren't on the roster last year, and Pascal Siakam, who scored 24 points on Saturday, was an exciting but limited second-unit weapon—not the All-Star-caliber dynamo he's become.

Dwane Casey lost his job almost entirely because of past postseason failures. But he wasn't around Saturday either; Nick Nurse was in charge.

Maybe more important than anything, LeBron James wasn't there to stomp on Canadian dreams.

Lowry, though, is the most significant constant. And that's why, when you're trying to dismiss the idea of Toronto being fated to fail when it matters, you run into a problem.

With Lowry bricking open looks from deep (and only shooting seven times, which is an issue on its own), it was hard to avoid feeling, even if only for a second, that nothing had changed. That the Raptors were stumbling down the same familiar path they'd trod before.

If you're the panicky sort, you could get yourself into some scary mental spots after Augustin banged home the decisive three.

Maybe it doesn't matter who's involved. Maybe Toronto is cursed.

Before we go any further, let's credit the Magic.

Augustin hung 25 points on a top-five defense, even after standout stopper Danny Green hounded him following a halftime matchup adjustment. The veteran point guard was 9-of-13 from the field, handed out six assists and turned it over just once. And in addition to hitting that dagger three, he also tied the score with a tough layup on Toronto's previous possession.

Lowry and the Raptors lost the game, sure. But Augustin and the Magic also won it. It's easy to forget that second part.

But how Orlando won is part of the reason Toronto shouldn't get too concerned.

The Magic shot 35.6 percent from deep on the season, which ranked 11th in the league. Pretty good, but not anything spectacular. On Saturday, Orlando nailed 48.3 percent of its treys (14-of-29). No team should be expected to hit nearly half its triples at a sustained clip, and its doubly fair to be skeptical of the Magic's shooting on a night when Michael Carter-Williams buried two of those long-distance shots. MCW, though an important addition at backup point late in the year, hasn't hit more than two three-pointers in a game, regular season or otherwise, since 2014.

In 28 games with Houston and Orlando this year, MCW shot 26.3 percent from deep on extremely low volume. Treys from him are not something the Magic can count on.

We should expect Orlando to shoot it worse from deep going forward, and we should also anticipate the Raptors finding ways to leverage their strengths more often. The Raptors managed just 15 fast-break points, a disappointing figure for a team that ranked fifth in the NBA in transition frequency and first in points added per 100 possessions in transition.

Toronto also shot just 33.3 percent from distance, missing heaps of clean looks—especially in the first half. Given the quality of the Raptors' shots and the fact they ranked sixth in three-point accuracy during the year, it's fair to expect better numbers.

Yes, Lowry has had some rough playoff moments. He fizzled early in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavs, shooting a combined 8-of-28 in Games 1 and 2. He scored four points and went 0-of-6 from deep in a Game 1 first-round loss to the Bucks in 2017. We can now add Saturday's effort to a list that includes plenty of duds. But understand that his off nights distract from a perfectly fine recent playoff history.

In 10 postseason games last year, Lowry averaged 17.4 points, 8.5 assists and shot 44.4 percent from three.

No wonder he's not worried.

Of course, if you're committed to freaking out over Toronto dropping another Game 1, you can still do that.

For example, you could talk yourself into the idea that the final defensive sequence that yielded Augustin's game-winner, in which two new Raptors botched their pick-and-roll coverage, was a metaphor for a team that seemed strangely disjointed all year.

Toronto's disconnection manifested itself in a pair of different offensive looks during the regular season—one when Leonard played, one when he didn't—and Lowry's passivity, which often bordered on disengagement. Gasol's arrival seemed to pull everyone together (and spike the Raptors' assist percentage), but if there's reason for worry, don't fixate on a curse.

Focus instead on the foot Leonard has out the door, Lowry's possibly lingering dissatisfaction with the DeMar DeRozan trade and a handful of key figures likely headed for free agency. Those are all better explanations for shaky chemistry or general underperformance than some kind of weird playoff hex.

I know, I know. It's tough to ignore the painful narrative that Lowry and the Raptors come up short in the postseason—especially when an upstart like Orlando is the one reopening wounds.

But the Magic played uncharacteristically well and only managed to win at the buzzer. If Lowry goes 2-of-6 from deep instead of laying an egg, the Raptors win and the talk is about how Toronto could bring its C-minus game and still knock off Orlando. And perhaps more importantly, we would have discussed Leonard's two late buckets, a step-back three and a clutch jumper from the left baseline. Those provided precisely the takeover scoring previous Raptors playoff teams lacked.

Orlando's 21-9 record after Feb. 1 feels a little more real after Game 1, but take a deep breath, Raptors. Understand that you came out on the wrong side of a make-or-miss sport and that major changes aren't required ahead of Game 2.

Hard as it is to believe in the moment, Lowry and Toronto will be fine.

    

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Saturday, April 13.

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