The Toronto Raptors miss Kyle Lowry in countless ways, from his three-point shooting to his ability to get teammates the ball, from his fourth-quarter heroics to his defence.
Toronto's injured all-star point guard will miss his fifth game Friday as the Raptors open a five-game series with the second game of a home-and-home set with the Washington Wizards. Lowry underwent surgery on Tuesday in New York to remove loose bodies (fragments of cartilage or bone) from his right wrist. The team anticipates he'll return by the playoffs, but in the meantime, adjusting to his absence is complicated.
The team mustered dramatic wins against Boston, Portland and New York in the first three games he missed, but an embarrassing loss to Washington on Wednesday showed glaring examples of what can happen without him against a good opponent.
The team had an abysmal three assists in the first three quarters, the result of poor ball movement, low energy and the fact that the players made just 33 of their 90 field-goal attempts.
"That's where we really miss Kyle – he knows the feel of the game and when to get guys involved, including myself," DeMarre Carroll said. "I think ever since Kyle's been out, I think I'm averaging only four shots."
Before the injury, sustained Feb. 15 against Charlotte, Lowry was playing an NBA-leading 37.7 minutes a game. He was having a career year from three-point range, averaging 3.3 of them a game and shooting 41.7 per cent from beyond the arc.
"We definitely lose some three-point shooting with Kyle being out, but we can do it. It definitely puts more emphasis on the defence," said backup point guard Cory Joseph. "We showed we can do it in the Boston game and other games, we just can't get down by such a big deficit. We've been playing down the last couple games and we can't do that. We can't come back and win every game."
The team has to find a way to account for the 22.8 points and 6.9 assists Lowry averaged each night – many of those coming as he led fourth-quarter comeback attempts.
He also played essential minutes with the second unit in second quarters and with the key close-out group at the end of close games.
The Raptors have given more minutes to Norman Powell – especially now that Terrence Ross left in the trade for Serge Ibaka – but Powell has struggled to hit shots recently. DeMar DeRozan has added extra scoring at times, but the Raptors are careful not to tax their other all-star too much as 21 games remain.
Limiting DeRozan's minutes is critical to avoid burnout, but it's easier said than done. On Wednesday, while he was on the bench in the second quarter, the Wizards went on a 26-1 run, and the Raptors couldn't recover, eventually losing 105-96.
"DeMar's going to get his offensive game going no matter what, so we can't just rely on him to carry us throughout the whole game," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. "Teams are going to do their best job of double-teaming him, they're going to try to get the ball out of his hands, so we've got to be able to be aggressive and confident, knock down shots and take them when they're there. We can't just give him the ball and just go stand in the corner and be like, 'take us home' type of thing."
Casey said he won't change the starting lineup, but he will likely stagger the minutes differently in the first quarter. Some starters may leave earlier in the first – perhaps Jonas Valanciunas – so they can start the second with the reserves and offer some offence, thus avoiding a second-quarter collapse.
The 36-25 Raptors are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with five games over the next 10 days in Washington, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Atlanta and Miami.
Lowry will travel with the Raptors on this trip, getting treatment with team doctors and helping his teammates from the bench.