NBA fans have known for a while that Kyle Lowry is pretty damn good. But that respect was an abstract one: Lowry's value was an acknowledged fact, if not one with specific dimensions. He's good, but why? He plays in a far away land, is never on national TV and has made more headlines for the trade rumors he's been a part of than what he's done on the court.
Even in the world of hoops nerd-dom, Lowry is often an afterthought. You know those blind Player A vs. Player B statistical side-by-sides. The ones to make you realize that "Woah! Big Name Player A is actually less productive than Relative Nobody Player B?"
Kyle Lowry is always Player B.
No, you don't know much about Kyle Lowry, but eviscerating Deron and the Nets on national TV in a crucial game 5 goes a long way toward fixing that. "Best point guard in the East" ain't exactly what it used to be, but at 28 and squarely in his prime, Lowry has as strong a claim as anyone to the title: A better shooter than Wall, more consistent than Deron, a far better defender than Kyrie. So why haven't you heard about him?
To some degree, that's because, before this season's success, Lowry had a reputation for being a jerk, to coaches and teammates. He clashed with Kevin McHale in Houston, and there were rumors that he and Dwane Casey were on the outs early this season. After two productive seasons as a starter in Houston, the Rockets' stat-savvy front office sent Lowry away for Gary Forbes and a first-round pick, which ended up as a part of the James Harden deal, so it isn't as though Houston just gave its starting point guard away—but still. Lowry wasn't exactly exiled to Toronto, but it was close.
Following an uneasy apprenticeship under consummate point guard Jose Calderon last season, Lowry has become a reliable floor leader with a strong relationship with All-Star DeMar DeRozan. He knows how to throttle back and feed others, particularly the Raptors wings, who are ever curling off screens, and when to put the pedal down and get his. Last year, Lowry had a tendency to hijack the offense. But he's now fitting into Casey's system more than imposing himself on it, and a surprising amount of Lowry's offense comes on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers—2.6 attempts per game, a high number for a point guard.
And those are all great, effective qualities for a point guard. Thing is, that vicious behind-the-back crossover he used to dump Deron Williams for a clutch bucket notwithstanding, Lowry is more effective than electric. Six-foot-nothing and not much of a leaper, he does his work on the ground floor, bowling through bigger defenders near the rim before they have a chance to elevate. He takes charges and swipes loose dribbles. He dominates the first five feet above the floorboards.
Lowry isn't in the Westbrook-Wall-Teague class of speedsters, but he combines a quick first step with excellent strength and a very low center of gravity—think Maurice Jones-Drew, if he hit the hole at waist-level. If he can slide his shoulder past with a hesitation in-and-out dribble, his defender won't recover position. And then he's gone. Lowry goes straight to the rim when he has the chance. He doesn't probe like Chris Paul, and doesn't have spectacular vision, so once he puts his head down, he's looking for a bucket, or contact. One of the reasons Lowry has flown below the radar is his dutiful production on offense lacks the thrill of Ty Lawson's explosions through the open court or the flair of fellow late-bloomer Goran Dragic's deft finishes.
But what really differentiates Lowry from most guards who can score a bit is his defense. Lowry is a pest and a bully. All lateral quickness and stocky build, Lowry is a confrontational defender who takes it upon himself to challenge the opposing ball handler like only a few other players. (He's smart enough to flop when his mark returns the contact. He likes to slide under his man, leveraging his stature to keep his chest at the level of the ball handler's shoulder and draw as many dubious offensive fouls as anyone in the league.)
Paraphrasing his coach at Villanova, Lowry is a "two dogs, one bone" kind of guy, and Lowry's four-year stint as a backup didn't do anything to sand down the chip on his shoulder. He's scrappy and tough, but has tempered that fire to be his team's most dependable player. The Raptors offense is built principally on Lowry in the pick-and-roll, so they need him to keep steady, since he only has one other teammate who can dribble (his backup, Greivis Vasquez) and Brooklyn can be a nightmare for pick-and-roll offenses.
For the first four games, Lowry struggled to adjust. The Nets chased him over pick-and-rolls to force him off the three-point line then swarmed him at the rim. Lowry is a good, high-volume three-point shooter but a poor mid-range shooter. He doesn't have that 17-foot fade-away that Tony Parker and Chris Paul use to find space off the elbows, and he can't slam on the brakes and rise up for a 15-footer like Russell Westbrook. In keeping with his Houston Rockets roots, it's three-pointers and layups for Lowry. But against the Nets, those threes were contested, and the lanes to the hoop swallowed up by rangy defenders who could hang with him, never letting him put that shoulder into them and get around.
The Nets exposed a weakness in Lowry's game, the kind of hole that separates players at the highest tiers. He was hardly proving that he deserves to be Player A.
Against the Nets in Game 5, Brooklyn stayed bottling him up, but the Raptors ran more iso sets for Lowry, and what pick-and-rolls he did run, he'd often hesitate briefly, and allow his man to catch up, essentially turning the play into an iso starting 16 feet from the basket, instead of farther out. This wasn't a surefire solution—he still didn't really get to the rim, and had to shoot the lights out on contested jumpers to shake out his game—but that's what Player A's do. And it's put the Raptors one win from a playoff series victory.
Beckley Mason writes about basketball for HoopSpeak, The New York Times, and other places. You can follow him on twitter @BeckleyMason.