The Toronto Raptors don't have Kawhi Leonard to drive them to another championship, but Kyle Lowry's play Saturday suggests there's another route to the same destination.
The veteran point guard led the Raps to a 107-92 win over the Los Angeles Lakers near Orlando, Florida, by racking up a game-high 33 points to go along with six assists, a career-best 14 boards and (unofficially) 419 reckless dives on to the floor. As has long been the case with Lowry, his greatest contributions fell outside the box score.
Not that he cares about the box score anyway.
Example: One of Toronto's key buckets down the stretch, which conspicuously showcased Pascal Siakam's length and skill, started with Lowry subtly setting a high screen on Anthony Davis.
You could kill a lot of time scouring Raptors tape for "little things" contributions like that screen assist from Lowry, but it just so happened that Saturday's effort also saw him help the cause in more obvious ways. Like when he drilled a dagger three to salvage a going-nowhere late-game possession.
The most visible evidence of Leonard's absence this season shows up in the Raps' half-court scoring numbers. Without one of the game's preeminent one-on-one forces, the Raptors have struggled to find good shots when their sets break down, or they can't collect buckets in transition. Last season, they ranked eighth in half-court efficiency. This year, they're 16th.
Lowry's nowhere near the something-out-of-nothing scorer Leonard was, but his control over Saturday's game was so total that it kind of felt right for him to assume that role when his team needed it.
It was a "Why not?" shot on a "Why not us?" night.
Toronto's defense—long, swarming, disruptive—held the Lakers to one of their worst offensive outputs of the campaign. L.A. shot a season-low 35.4 percent from the floor, and Davis failed to record a field goal until the second half. The Raptors were relentless. They rotated with a hive-mind efficiency, tipped passes, forced tough shots with ball pressure and constantly tweaked their looks to keep the Lakers off balance.
Kevin O'Connor @KevinOConnorNBA
Toronto's defense is unreal. Feels like they're always around the ball causing problems. They're so dang big and long. Not a single weak link regardless of the lineup. Same on offense. Bunch of smart players who execute at a high level. The Raptors are real NBA Finals threats.
Yes, it takes five players to pull off a smother job as thorough as the one Toronto did Saturday. But there was no denying Lowry's smart, scrappy spirit defined the Raptors' defensive effort.
And if you really want to run with the notion that Lowry's impact on his team's identity extends into everything, it's not a stretch to attribute the unselfishness, patience and confidence evident in this early-game sequence to him.
At the very least, we can agree that a Leonard-led version of the Raptors didn't turn in many plays like that one.
It's unclear if this version of the Raptors has what it takes to match what last year's did. But it's still worth appreciating that Toronto didn't have to re-form itself around a new leader, because the guy who'd always determined how the team played was already there. Granted, this transition of power from Leonard to Lowry feels all wrong; logically, you'd expect Siakam, the emerging star, to be the one stepping into the void left by Leonard.
We've seen strides forward from Siakam, OG Anunoby (who was fantastic in guarding LeBron James) and others, but it's undeniably odd that a late-prime veteran who leads with head and heart is so clearly the one in charge of a team that's every bit as good without the Finals MVP.
And lest this come off like an overreaction to a single seeding game, understand that this Toronto team has been better than last year's all along. A higher net rating than the 2018-19 squad and the best record in the league since Jan. 15 show the Lowry-led Raps, just now getting some hype, deserved it months ago.
Years of NBA history say serious title threats need a superstar, and there will be times between now and whenever the next champ is crowned that Toronto will miss what Leonard provided. That said, Lowry and the Raptors just took down a Lakers team with two players on Leonard's level. Decisively.
Let's give one of them, who knows a thing or two about winning on the biggest stage, the last word on just how good Lowry's Raptors are.