The Raptors are good enough and gritty enough to roar back. They’ve broken the soul-crushing, heartbreaking trend of playoff letdowns despite poor shooting from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in Game 7 on Sunday in Toronto. They know it wasn’t pretty, but a win’s a win, and they take a win however they can get it. With their back to the wall, the Raptors beat the Pacers 89-84 in Sunday’s thrilling Game 7 to survive a best-of-seven series.
Even if the Raptors clawed their way to the Eastern Conference semifinals, no one is under the impression that Toronto matches well against the Miami Heat. But if they are to have a real chance this season, Raptors stars Lowry and DeRozan have to shoot the ball efficiently and consistently. Lowry and DeRozan are a prolific backcourt duo, but they’re not stepping up their game at the right time and have not come alive.
This series isn’t going to be any easier. This is DeRozan’s and Lowry’s prime, but they’ve both lost their shooting touch. They were unable to rediscover themselves, unable to elevate their game to their highest potential. The Raptors have not been so good that some have already written them off after another poor shooting performance. Who knows, DeRozan and Lowry may snap out of their shooting slump. In this series, if they can’t shoot the ball effectively, then the Heat would likely steamroll Toronto in four or five games. The cornerstones of the Raptors’ regular-season dominance — DeRozan and Lowry — couldn’t break out of this slump in a Game 1 loss at Air Canada Centre.
With 3.3 seconds left in regulation, Lowry ran down the floor and let it fly, a half-court, rainbow shot that he watched fall through the basket. This night, Lowry had the worst shooting performance of his career, though he was shooting incredibly well during the regular-season. This isn’t to say that Lowry’s aggressive, on-court persona and confidence — which he believes he can turn it around while it’s still plenty of time to rectify his flawed shooting — have evaporated for good in this series. It’s just that, mind you, he’s been unable to yet deliver a dominating performance, even after his miracle shot that sent the Raptors to overtime. It wasn’t good enough to prevail in the end, and Tuesday’s Game 1 102-96 loss in overtime was an ominous sign of bad things to come, unless Lowry is capable of overcoming a stretch of mercurial shooting.
Having said that, it’s hard to imagine the Raptors emerging from the East. With Lowry and DeRozan struggling mightily, there’s no way Toronto will beat Miami to move on in these playoffs, just no way, and at least for now, it looks we’re all but certain to see them play in the Eastern Conference finals. For Lowry, the stakes are higher, and with a tougher challenge the Raptors face, the margin for error is diminishing. After shooting just 3-of-13 in Game against Miami, and 1-of-7 from three-point range, numbers that were far worse than his awful shooting in the first round against Indiana, Lowry went to work by himself on an empty court at Air Canada Centre. He was shooting and shooting at his late-night shootaround session until the wee hours of early morning, putting up shot after shot.
If the Raptors have their sights set on beating the Heat in a seven-game series, Lowry is going to have to play better, much better than what he has produced so far in these playoffs. The criticism heaps on his performance, but as one can see, he’s unfazed by it all and is only open to any positive feedback and advice from his mentors, family members and close friends. While many are treating this series like it’s over, Lowry is treating it like it is Toronto’s to win, even though he’s been painful to watch. If he continues to shoot poorly, then the Raptors are no doubt in serious trouble. And if DeRozan doesn’t step it up a notch, then the Raptors won’t last very long in the Miami series.
Though the Raptors erupted and mounted a comeback in the third quarter of Game 1, the Heat ran out to a quick lead in overtime and wouldn’t stop fighting. And yet somehow, despite all the problems, DeRozan reverted back to his old self at an opportune time, picking his sweet spots, scoring 22 points on 9-of-22 shooting. He looked unflustered on the floor against Miami and remained serene in the midst of turbulence that eventually turned out to be a comeback for the Raptors, just not enough to survive in the end. And sure, Jonas Valanciunas was superb down low against Hassan Whiteside, scoring 24 points and grabbing 14 rebounds.
The stakes are just as high for Valanciunas. He has emerged as one of the league’s promising young big men. Without question, he’s becoming a much-needed third option in Toronto’s offense, an unstoppable force underneath the basket and a decent rim protector. The Raptors, however, are not championship-caliber just yet, but it feels like they are on the brink of being one of the top contenders in the East. The bad news for Toronto is that Lowry, no matter how much he shoots, cannot break out of his pattern, a bad habit of missed shots after missed shots.
It is yet to be seen whether or not he can ride a hot streak, but his coach, Dwane Casey, believes he’s going to come out of it. With Toronto’s young core, meanwhile, Casey insisted that the Raptors could survive even if Lowry continues to misfire. Ever since he injured his right arm in fall in March, Lowry has lost his shooting touch, but it doesn’t seem he has been bothered by pain in his shooting elbow. Under the current circumstances, however, it is hard to see the Raptors standing alone in the Eastern conference. This is especially true if Lowry remains ice cold. This is especially true when he missed all three of his shots in the first six minutes of the game. Toronto had a six-point lead, but couldn’t add to it after Lowry had missed a couple of critical shots that would have probably given them a double-digit lead.
Lowry is the team’s best player, the guy who is the face of the franchise, a huge part of his team’s playoff run. When he’s shooting efficiently, Toronto is lethal and dangerous. When he’s having an off-shooting night, they are open to attack.
They won’t roar until Lowry’s shots begin to roar.