The Toronto Raptors acquired Kyle Lowry in July of 2012. By October of 2012, just two preseason games into his tenure, I was sold, penning an early missive of appreciation. After TWO preseason games. At the time, Lowry was joining the team with a bit of a shaky reputation from an off-court perspective, questions over whether he was a starting caliber point guard, and assurances that he had the competitive fire and tenacity to become a fan-favorite, if nothing else.
Looking back here, four years later and four games into the 2016-17 exhibition schedule, it’s incredible how far Lowry’s come. He’s gone so far beyond answering the initial questions and proving himself not just a starter, but a star, that the biggest questions around him this preseason are either ethereal in nature (Can he be an MVP candidate?) or mostly unrelated to his own performance (Can the bench step up enough to help limit his workload?). The growth in Lowry’s game, stature around the league, and importance to this franchise over the last four seasons is nothing short of remarkable, and it never ceases to both impress and inspire.
To wit, even in a meaningless preseason game Thursday, Lowry was able to awe with a stark reminder of just how good he is. It took Lowry all of 20 minutes and nine field-goal attempts to tally 25 points, helping the Raptors shake off an ugly start against the Cleveland Cavaliers and cruise to a 119-94 victory. Lowry, himself, started a little shaky, committing a few miscues in the opening minutes. He settled in from there, stabilize the youth-heavy starting lineup around him and playing the bulk of the first half, with a similar rest pattern to what he can expect in the regular season. Once down 12 points thanks to porous defense, the Raptors surged to a 19-point halftime lead on the back of Lowry’s scoring and playmaking, and he called it a night after two quarters with the game safely in hand.
Lowry, in other words, is ready for the regular season. The time with the U.S. Olympic team doesn’t appear to have slowed him any despite his admission he had to alter his offseason gameplan, and for as much as preseason can tell us, Lowry looks, well, like Lowry.
That’s all you really want to see from your established guys at this point in October. Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are fond of talking about how they trade possessions, quarters, or even games to dominate, and that’s been evident in the preseason. DeRozan went off while Lowry sat against the Clippers, and Lowry went off while DeRozan sat against the Cavaliers. All told, they combined for 45 points on 20 field goal attempts in 38 total minutes in those two games. The Raptors go how Lowry and DeRozan go, and in that sense, the Raptors would probably be comfortable with the season starting any time now.
That Cory Joseph came in and carried on Lowry’s dominance – first alongside and then in his stead – speaks further to the apparent readiness of the primary pieces. Joseph took major steps a season ago in blowing past his previous career high in minutes, but there were elements of his game that were sometimes found wanting. All through the preseason, he’s shown a renewed confidence in his jump-shot, pulling up over screens in the mid-range to complement his funky dribble-attack game. Against the Cavaliers, Joseph mixed his drives and jumpers to cruise to 17 points in 19 minutes, with the offense experiencing very little drop-off with Joseph as its primary operator. Even Fred VanVleet, called on as the third-string point, kept things humming with another steady performance. For at least a night, and really for the entire preseason, the Raptors’ point guard corps looks to be in good shape.
There’s more to training camp than just getting the regulars in form, though, and in that regard the Raptors have some work to do.
On a night in which DeRozan (rest) and Jared Sullinger (foot) both sat, the regular-season starting lineup didn’t get any time together. Sullinger’s played just once in the preseason, and his fit and comfort with the starters will likely be a major focus over the final three games and week-plus of the preseason. Terrence Ross (knee) sat, too, so the Raptors were playing without three rotation players.
That’s not a big deal in the course of the preseason, but it does leave a major question mark difficult to answer: Is the defense going to be a problem? The Raptors defended well against the Golden State Warriors, and the bench-heavy groups have done a great job executing to the final buzzer and using their energy to limit opponents at that end. The primary rotation, however, has struggled in three consecutive games, at least early on. The Clippers’ devastating three-man pick-and-roll attack was nearly unstoppable, the Nuggets scored at will for an entire half, and the Cavaliers feasted on a steady diet of open threes in the early moments of Thursday’s game. They figured it out and settled in, particularly as it pertained to keeping Kevin Love in check, but it seems as if guarding the 3-point line might be a problem once again this year.
It’s still early, though. The preseason is more about the positives than the negatives, and there were enough of the former Thursday. Kyle Lowry remains firmly Over Everything, Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, and Patrick Patterson look to be ready to go, Jonas Valanciunas continues to produce despite not looking his best, and the tryout players are performing well enough to make the decision difficult for the Raptors’ brass. Somehow, three more preseason games remain, the final two of which will be something resembling a full dress rehearsal. Until then, everyone still has Friday against San Lorenzo de Almagro to make their case for a bigger role in said rehearsals.Follow @raptorsrepublic