Since the dynamic, expressive and fun-loving pairing of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan united in 2012-13, they’ve led the Toronto Raptors into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference while pinning a combined eight All-Star badges to their red, black and white jerseys.
With four Atlantic Division titles and a top Eastern Conference seed to their name, Lowry and DeRozan have etched themselves into Toronto’s regular-season lore. But for the most part, that’s all it’s been for the backcourt duo.
The NBA’s unofficial second season has served as a meteorite crashing down on Lowry and DeRozan. Two vaunted velociraptors, who roam uninhibited up north in their personal domain of Toronto during the regular season, stare wide-eyed at the bright lights of the postseason and transform into inefficient, stagnant chuckers.
Analysis, editorials and feature pieces have ingrained the Raptors’ culture change into the mind of NBA cognoscenti this season. For a team that has made its living in the regular season, though, worries continued to swirl around Toronto, particularly its two stars, as it entered the postseason perched atop the East.
In a tightly contested, six-game battle of the backcourts against the Washington Wizards, Lowry and DeRozan opened their closet door, stared down the boogie man and spooked him away — at least for now.
While DeRozan’s surface-level averages (26.7 points, 4.8 assists and 3.3 rebounds on .436/.385/.810 splits) are flashier than Lowry’s (17.2 points, 8.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds on .474/.436/.778 splits), there’s no denying that the Villanova product was the conductor driving Toronto’s train toward the second round.
Against the Wizards, Lowry amassed playoff career highs in assists (8.3) and steals per game (2.0), true shooting percentage (61.4), player efficiency rating (18.9), win shares per-48 minutes (.162), box score plus-minus (4.8) and net rating (plus-8.9).
His net rating was third on the Raptors and when he was riding the pine, Toronto was minus-13.9, per-100 possessions. Only Fred VanVleet, who played just 22 minutes in the series, and Jonas Valanciunas, who played all but eight of his 148 minutes alongside Lowry, had better net ratings.
With an assist-to-turnover ratio that bested John Wall’s (2.8 to 2.6), Lowry’s playmaking, despite averaging 3.2 fewer assists, rivaled the former Kentucky Wildcats’. He was lethal in transition, consistently dicing up a scattered Wizards defense:
And when Washington failed to pick up Lowry, he thrived, rising for pull-up three-pointers:
Lowry’s masterful work bred 1.30 points per possession in transition for Toronto, tops in the league during the postseason (per Synergy, as of April 26).
The playmaking prowess continued into half-court sets as well. Wiggling around screens into the lane, Lowry, despite his 6-foot stature, was the hub of attention, collapsing defenses and feeding rolling big men, unattended cutters or snipers on the perimeter:
Lowry also leveraged his gravity as a deep threat to spark easy scores for teammates. When the Wizards hedged or trapped on the pick and roll, he slung passes to his big men for buckets and when defenders rushed to close out on the perimeter, he simply made the extra pass:
The four-time All-Star continued to employ the off-ball movement that crafted such a potent offensive attack for Toronto in the regular season. Of Lowry’s 36 made baskets, 13 came via assists (36.1 percent), the second-highest mark of his postseason career.
Much like the regular season, Lowry was an off-ball threat, allowing DeRozan to serve as the primary ball-handler. He worked around back picks from Valanciunas, took handoffs from the Lithuanian big man and, using his unconventional point-guard frame, was often the screener before becoming the nucleus in a given action:
His co-anchor in DeRozan, meanwhile, dominated on the ball while averaging a playoff career-high 26.7 points a night. He led the Association with 12.6 pick-and-roll possessions per game in the first round while remaining efficient in such sets, producing 1.00 PPP (84th percentile, as of April 26).
DeRozan acted as a three-level scorer out of the pick and roll. He brought out all the tricks with feathery floaters, ferocious drives to the rim, smooth midrange jumpers and even the occasional pull-up three-pointer. He attacked switches, whipped out cruel crossovers against slow-reacting opponents and put trailing defenders in jail after moving around screens:
Much was made of DeRozan’s newfound three-point stroke during the regular season — an integral part in Toronto’s novel offensive scheme as he traded in some of his long two-pointers for threes. However, the 6-foot-7 wing only connected on 31.2 percent of his looks from deep on the season. What was important, though, was his willingness to let it fly beyond the arc. Similar to Lowry’s off-ball movement, that trend carried into the first round for the Raptors, allowing he and Lowry to share lead guard duties, seamlessly switching roles when playing alongside each other.
After attempting 3.6 three-pointers per game in the regular season, DeRozan attempted 4.3 long-range bombs a night against the Wizards. He exhibited a sense of comfort on both catch-and-shoot and pull-up three-pointers, finding success either way (44.4 percent on catch-and-shoot, 37.5 percent off the dribble). He made the Wizards pay for abandoning him on the perimeter and was unabashed with defenders in his airspace, elevating over the top:
As a two-man unit, Lowry and DeRozan forged a plus-10.9 net rating. It’s the first time they haven’t been a net negative in the postseason together and just the second time they’ve produced a positive net rating in the first round (plus-5.4 last season). Much of that turnaround was contingent on their ability to work off one another, sharing the role of floor general and continuing to empower teammates. They traded isolation-heavy trips down the floor for ones headlined by crisp ball movement and found shots within the flow of the offense.
As the Raptors rampaged their way to a 59-23 record and the conference’s No. 1 seed, much of the praise bestowed upon them was done so with a caveat: They’ve been great so far and their offense is markedly different, but their stars have consistently wilted in the postseason. Can they carry this style of play into the playoffs?
Against a feisty Wizards team led by John Wall regaining superstar form, Toronto did just that. At least for a round, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan showed their stylistic changes are genuine and here to stay, fighting off the meteorite that’s often felt imminent for the Raptors in the postseason and eluding extinction.
All stats and videos via NBA.com and Basketball-Reference and are accurate as of April 28 unless otherwise noted.