TORONTO — With 90 seconds to go in Sunday’s showdown between the top two teams in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks, the ball found its way to Kyle Lowry in the corner for a wide-open shot.
As the Raptors clung to a 97-94 lead, it offered Toronto a chance to double its advantage, help finish off what had become a comeback from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit and lead Toronto to a league-leading 22nd win of the season.
But Lowry missed — just as he had the prior four times he’d attempted a shot Sunday night. In doing so, he opened the door for the Bucks to get back into the game.
Milwaukee did just that.
Back-to-back 3-pointers on the ensuing two possessions by Malcolm Brogdon allowed the Bucks to retake the lead for good, and Milwaukee — led by 19 points, 19 rebounds and 6 assists from Giannis Antetokounmpo — would go on to claim a 104-99 victory at Scotiabank Arena, adding another level of scrutiny to Lowry’s performance after he went scoreless and missed all five shots he took, continuing a prolonged shooting slump.
“I’ve gotta look at the film, see where it was at,” said Lowry, who went scoreless for the first time in his career when he played at least 30 minutes, and for the first time in any game since going scoreless in Miami on March 17, 2013.
“I don’t know. Just couldn’t find the open ones tonight.”
At this point, though, it isn’t a one-night thing. Over the past four games, Lowry has gone 4-for-28 from the field — including 3-for-25 from 3-point range. That 4-for-28 mark from the floor is tied for the worst stretch of Lowry’s career, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, matching a 2-for-14 stretch he had 10 years ago while he was playing for the Memphis Grizzlies in his second full season in the NBA.
Lowry’s struggles are reminiscent of the consistency issues he’s shown during the postseason in the past. That is especially true considering the four most recent games have featured three teams — the Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets — that should be playoff participants, with the Bucks and Sixers very likely to serve as potential foes in either the Eastern Conference semifinals or finals next spring.
And, as Sunday’s outcome showed, for the Raptors to be at their best, they will need more than this kind of showing from Lowry to get where they hope to go.
“Our offense kind of allows everybody to be themselves and take their shots,” Kawhi Leonard said. “[There is] a lot of freedom. With that said, he’s gonna have some big games coming up. He’s missing (inaudible) shots, that’s why we play 82 games.
“[It’s] just a test for the playoffs. You just got to think down the road. If you have big games like this, just buy in and come into the next game. He’s working here in practice with his shot. It’s gonna fall for him. He’ll probably hit seven in a row or something.”
One potential fix: getting much more aggressive — a sentiment virtually every Raptor echoed postgame, and one Lowry agreed with. While he’s become one of the NBA’s biggest, and most effective, volume shooters in recent seasons, shooting 90 percent of his shots from behind the arc — as he has the past few games — is pushing too far in that direction.
“Yeah, I’ve gotta … I was thinking about that tonight,” Lowry said. “I just didn’t get an opportunity, or just didn’t do it, rather.
“I’ve gotta be a little bit more inside the paint, inside the arc. I definitely do.”
His teammates and coaches agree.
“Just be there to support him,” fellow Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet said. “He’s got to shoot more. I don’t know what he shot tonight, but it didn’t feel like enough. … He’s got to shoot 0-for-20, that would be my only advice to him.
“He’s one of the best shooters in the league. There’s ups and downs to being a shooter. You’re not going to be hot all the time and he’ll finish the year over 40 percent [from 3-point range] and this will seem like so long ago. Just want to stay on him and keep instilling confidence in him and just be there to support him.”
“I think we need some of his paint touches,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I think some of that is both. He’s driven in there and kicked it out to some open guys a lot because they’re really giving him a lot of attention.
“But, somehow, we have to get him to bulldoze his way in there and get to the rim and get some paint shots, or at-the-rim shots.”
In many ways, Lowry has taken to the egalitarian approach to the offense Nurse has espoused this season. He had a game-high seven assists Sunday and he’s averaging 10 per game — by far the most he’s ever recorded, and the most in the NBA this season. It has also served to benefit Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam, both of whom are off to sensational starts and had strong performances against the Bucks (22 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists for Ibaka, 17 points and 7 rebounds for Siakam). Leonard, meanwhile, has been every bit the player he was before missing all but nine games last season with tendinopathy in his left quadriceps.
But the Raptors need more from Lowry — particularly with their vaunted “bench mob” struggling to come anywhere close to replicating what it did last season. In the five-point loss Sunday, OG Anunoby, CJ Miles and Delon Wright were all at least minus-14 in less than 15 minutes apiece.
Had Lowry delivered a typical night, it might not have mattered. But he didn’t, and the Raptors have dropped two games in a row as a result.
Now Toronto heads out for a difficult four-game West Coast trip against the LA Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers and the Nuggets — a trip during which they’ll likely be without Leonard for either the Clippers or Warriors game, assuming Toronto continues to stick with its policy of resting Leonard in one game of each of its back-to-back sets this season.
“Shooting comes and goes,” VanVleet said. “It’s the other stuff that’s non-negotiable, the defense, the leadership, the passing, playmaking. He’s done a great job of doing everything else. His shot will come back.”