Wednesday 23 August 2017 / 08:28 AM

HAVE THE RAPTORS FIGURED IT OUT?

Kyle Lowry, the brazen Toronto Raptors point guard, stood before the crowd of reporters and listlessly answered their questions following the Raptors Game 4 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Lowry talked of the “intensity” the Raptors lacked, and how they needed to focus in against their first-round opponent.

Lowry had been here before. Each of the last three seasons, the upstart Raptors have come into the postseason, only to hit a wall against whomever they play. Two seasons ago, it was the young Raptors against the Brooklyn Nets. Paul Pierce and the Nets were tested against the youthful Raptors, but Pierce blocked away Lowry’s attempt for a series winner.

Last season, it was the higher seeded and favored Raptors against the Washington Wizards. This time, the Raptors fell flat on their face. The Wizards overloaded the Raptors, and the two stars from the regular season faded into nothing.

This season, the Raptors are overwhelming favorites. Where in the past, the Raptors losses were excused by playing as the lower seed, or playing an evenly matched team, this year they come into the playoffs as the East’s number two overall seed. The Raptors were a heavy favorite against the Indiana Pacers, who are fresh off a short rebuild of their roster and the recovery of Paul George. This year was supposed to be different.

Game 1 saw the Pacers blitz Toronto, with media outlets harping on a coaching or effort problem for the Raptors. But in Games 2 and 3, the Raptors roared back, winning both and taking a decisive 2-1 advantage in the series following a dominating performance over Indiana on the Pacers’ own home floor. But again, the wheels came off the wagon.

The Raptors were blitzed from the opening gun by the Pacers in Game 4, with Indiana limiting the Raptors to just 36% shooting, and just 8-30 from the three-point line. Indiana also shored up the rebounding edge Toronto had been enjoying, and saw a big contribution from Ian Mahinmi.

But the biggest takeaways from Game 4 was DeMar DeRozan and DeMarre Carroll, a star and a key addition during the offseason, being outplayed again by Paul George and Monta Ellis. Meanwhile George Hill outperformed All-Star Kyle Lowry for the second time in this series.

Everything about regular-season Toronto was gone, with the fast-moving offense stymied, and the team struggling for its identity. The Raptors saw their pace, one of the fastest in the NBA, drop by just under 10 during the series, and the offense looked despondent.

And in Game 5, it seemed to fall in line the exact same way. Lowry struggled, while DeRozan became the lone bright spot on offense, as the Pacers quickly pumped out a double-digit lead that they would carry through three quarters. Again, the Raptors played slow and out of it.

At one point in the third quarter, Lowry was pulled for Cory Joseph, and the embattled guard sat down beside head coach Dwane Casey. The two watched on as the Pacers entered the final frame up 90-77, with Paul George carrying Indiana to a sure Game 5 win, all the pressure mounting on a Raptors side folding in the limelight again. And even I, the lowly NBA writer, spent the day, and most of the game, writing the obituary for the Raptors.

And then, the light came on. The Raptors roared back, at one point on a 23-2 tear in the fourth quarter on the back of DeMar DeRozan. The bench exploded, with huge contributions from Joseph and Bismack Biyombo. The Raptors upped their pace, along with forcing turnovers, and limited the Pacers on offense as they struggled to keep up on defense. It was as if the young Raptors finally remembered who they are, and how they got to this point.

But have they? The Raptors, despite the win, still saw the same recipe for a playoff loss that they’ve seen the last two seasons: a disappearance of Kyle Lowry. The All-Star guard averaged 21 ppg, 6.7 reb, 4.7 assists, and 2.1 steals on 51.6% effect shooting from the field and 39% from the three-point line during the regular season. In this series, however, Lowry has seen that line drop to 15 ppg, 4 reb, 7 assists, 1.3 steals, on 36.4% eFG and a paltry 18% from three.

Lowry is deferring more, but his shot has disappeared. His turnovers are up, and his play is noticeably less intensive. The Raptors have found ways to win, but locked in a tough series against Indiana, one where the Raptors are the much more talented team, it was DeRozan’s heroics that pulled the Raptors along before the bench and Lowry late could provide support.

In the final frame, Lowry provided a spark, being the leader of the unit that would bring the Raptors mostly back. A small lineup of Lowry, Joseph, Ross, Powell, and Biyombo disrupted the Pacers, and the lead shrunk. But Lowry was still noticeably uncomfortable on the floor in the moment.

At least on Tuesday night, the Raptors seemed to find their identity. And while the Raptors may be able to survive this series on the back of DeRozan and a small lineup, Lowry getting back to regular season form is key to being the same Raptors that have torn through the East in the last two seasons.

After his big game, DeRozan was quick to talk of his backcourt mate. “Me and this guy (Kyle Lowry) work extremely hard … It’s all about patience. You can’t get flustered. You can’t get frustrated. You have to stay the course, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do, whatever it takes to win.”

In the first four games, Lowry looked all of those things. But DeRozan seems determined to keep Lowry on track. Lowry seems to have found a piece of what made him such a force in the regular season. But he better find the spark that pushed him to back-to-back All-Star appearances for the Raptors to have a meaningful run.

Otherwise, Lowry will be back in a place that he’s become all too familiar with. Only this time, it won’t be a Raptors problem.

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About the author

Austin Albertson

Austin is CBS' senior NFL and NBA analyst, bringing you commentary on everything between the lines and inside the hashes, from the film room to the scoreboard.

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