Going into the season, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the Boston Celtics were destined for an NBA Finals showdown with the Golden State Warriors. They’d taken the Cavs to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference championship last spring, without their two best players in the lineup, and so much of the conversation since has revolved around the many ways in which they are best equipped to challenge the champs.
But that’s why they actually decide the outcome of games on the court. With Kawhi Leonard headed to Toronto last summer, Raptors were inevitably going to improve this year, but that also came with the major caveat that the former Finals MVP would return to form as one of the league’s top five players.
Few of us expected it would happen so quickly and that the Raptors would jell so effortlessly. But that’s precisely what’s happened through the first 11 games of the season, ten of which Toronto has won en route to an 11-1 record and the top seed in the East. The addition of Kawhi has obviously been the major catalyst, but it’s been Kyle Lowry‘s stellar play that has been the engine driving their success.
It’s no secret why. The Raptors added two elite perimeter threats in Kawhi and Danny Green, which has gifted Lowry with all sorts of room to operate on opposing defenses in a way that simply didn’t previously exist. Here’s what head coach Nick Nurse had to say about Lowry’s improved play in a recent interview with Reid Forgrave of CBS Sports:
“His instincts to play hard almost amaze me nightly,” Nurse said about Lowry. “We’ve got an energetic team. We’ve got a deep team. That’s what we’re trying to do, play a bunch of guys and play with energy. (Lowry) really has got a lot of great alertness. He’s really into the games. You can see how locked in he is. That’s common for him. But again, he’s just seeing a lot more opportunities to deliver the ball to a variety of people. That is different. It’s spacing. He’s just seeing a lot more opportunities to dish the ball off to people this year. The spacing’s gotta be a big reason for it. His vision of what he’s seeing out there is changing a little bit.”
As a result, Lowry is averaging a career high in assists (11.5 per game) and shooting over 40 percent from downtown, which is the second highest mark of his 12 seasons in the NBA.
Lowry famously had little to say about the trade that brought Kawhi town and shipped his best bud DeMar DeRozan off to San Antonio this summer. Emotions were just too high at the time. Yet, as the saying goes, winning solves just about everything in the NBA.
The challenge for Toronto will be to sustain this level of play, not only over the course of the season, but when it matters most in the playoffs. The Raptors have been notorious no-shows in the postseason the past several years after tearing through the regular season.
That will require consistency from everyone up and down the roster, including Serge Ibaka, who has been something of a revelation this season for Toronto as he’s logged some big performances here in the early going.
The race for the top seed in the East promises to be a lot more interesting than first anticipated, and it will only be more so as the Celtics continue to find their footing and figure out the best ways to weaponize one of the league’s most loaded rosters.