What drives Kyle Lowry’s unexplainable basketball genius?

“IF YOU’RE GOING to go get it, go get it,” Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry thinks to himself, in what must be one of the NBA’s more revealing internal monologues. “Finish the game off.”

When the shot leaves Kawhi Leonard‘s hands, nine players on the floor stand closer to the basket than Lowry.

The Raptors lead the Orlando Magic by three in Game 3 of a series tied 1-1, with 20 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Leonard’s shot falls short. When the ball caroms off the front lip of the rim and lands just beyond the free throw line, Lowry still hasn’t crashed the frame from where he was standing, heels just in front of the big Magic logo 40 feet from the hoop.

“It bounced once or twice, and I thought to get back to Terrence [Ross] because he was hot,” Lowry says moments later. “It kind of bounced and sat, so go make winning basketball plays.”

Lowry darts into the vacuum of space, between D.J. Augustin and Ross, who have every claim on that floating ball that he does. Lowry’s lurching for possession is no feat of dexterity — this is a fire alarm. Before Lowry is sure he’ll be the first to it, he’s already looking at teammate Danny Green, five feet to his right, because even if he’s able to get to the loose ball, there’s no certainty that he’ll be able to control it or his momentum. But Green is insulated from the scrum, so if the ball can find its way to him, it will be safe. Lowry’s hands take hold of the ball and, in one seamless motion, push it off to Green, who promptly returns it to Leonard, effectively securing a Toronto win.

The ability to perform this mental inventory in chaos — accounting for the opponent’s most lethal shooter in a 3-point game inside of 24 seconds, measuring the probability that corralling the ball is even possible, calculating the risk should you fail — has long been a signature feature of Lowry’s. It’s the kind of stuff basketball people refer to when they wax about the “little things” or “hustle” or qualities that “don’t show up in the box score.”

At no point in his career have Lowry’s individual numbers popped off the page; there have been few gaudy, Westbrookian totals. He’s averaging 11.9 points per game in these playoffs, the fewest of any 2019 All-Star still playing in May.

Yet in his 13 seasons in the NBA, Lowry has established himself as a darling of advanced stats. What are Lowry enthusiasts seeing between the columns in the traditional box scores that everyone else is not? What are these little things that are so often mentioned but so rarely defined?

ON A WEEKDAY in the spring of 2004, Billy Lange walked into the gym at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia and laid eyes on an oddly shaped point guard who was playing an entirely different brand of basketball.

“It was like a coach had a remote control of a player,” says Lange, who is now the head coach at St. Joseph’s after a six-year stint as an assistant with the 76ers.

Leaning against the wall along the baseline, Lange watched the collection of local high school players with college aspirations in hopes of finding a couple who could help the Villanova program, where he was an assistant coach. This was the early 2000s, an era when being big and being athletic — preferably both — were the calling cards for young prospects. Lowry was neither of those things.

“He made simple passes look sexy,” Lange says. “He used pump fakes in the lane to draw fouls. His weak-side defense was so advanced. He’s the most physical player on the floor, but it doesn’t look athletic — he’s waddling around with that body. Nothing he’s doing looks anything like what you see from kids on a Wednesday afternoon during the evaluation period. He’s been like this forever.”

Just about anyone who has ever played with Lowry, coached him or scouted him can offer one obscure skill, one little nuance that Lowry has mastered that accounts for why, even in the absence of shooting, he always seems to land on the positive side of the plus-minus ledger. Raptors guard Fred VanVleet cites Lowry’s advanced passes (or pass-aheads). Toronto coach Nick Nurse mentions that Lowry boxes out bigger opponents and prevents them from reaching a rebound, even if Lowry himself doesn’t ultimately grab it.

“You’ve got to be able to go out there and do the small things,” Lowry says. “I went to Villanova, and I didn’t start my freshman year until the last two games of the season. And I think that continuously not being ‘the man’ helped me as an individual be able to say, ‘Listen, what else do you need me to do?'”

Call it confirmation bias or serendipity, but when you start watching Raptors games with Lowry as your focal point, the sheer number of moments that capture these “what else?” plays is, indeed, profound.

Take Game 2 against the Sixers in the second quarter after VanVleet tips the ball away from Tobias Harris to ignite a fast break. VanVleet passes the ball ahead to Lowry over the timeline, with Leonard running the right wing and Harris in hot pursuit. Lowry shuttles a pass off to Leonard in stride, but the 6-foot-9 Harris has a clean angle to the rim for a contest — that is, until Lowry, after delivering the ball, plants himself in the paint.

As Harris crashes into Lowry, he staggers backward, almost cartoonishly. Meanwhile, Leonard is treated to the Raptors’ easiest shot attempt of the night.

When those who evaluate basketball want to identify who drives quality possessions irrespective of box score stats, they find Lowry toward the top of any list of NBA point guards, season in and season out. To characterize Lowry’s value, a former assistant coach invented a term — unstatable — as in, a player whose contributions cannot be captured in simple basketball statistics.

Routinely, Lowry will turn in an ugly line, but scan over to the plus-minus column, and he’ll lead the team. To take a recent and familiar example, Lowry went scoreless in an 0-for-7 performance from the field in the Raptors’ Game 1 loss vs. Orlando. But at plus-11, Lowry was the only Raptors starter in positive territory that day, and he led all 10 starters on both teams.

“He’s really unselfish. There’s no stat for that,” VanVleet says. “Some of this s— just can’t be explained.”

WHEN RAPTORS PRESIDENT of basketball operations Masai Ujiri arrived in Toronto in the spring of 2013, he inherited a core that included Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Andrea Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas. With the team coming off a 34-48 season, Ujiri needed to quickly evaluate his personnel and identify where value resided on the roster.

Although Lowry is now a five-time All-Star — a streak that started in 2015 — little about his worth was self-evident in the 2013 offseason. In 2012-13, Lowry averaged 11.6 points per game while shooting 40.1 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from beyond the arc. He was a good rebounder and put up decent assist numbers, but Lowry wasn’t preternaturally athletic, and his range was merely acceptable.

“When I first got the job, the analytics guys came to me to tell me how much Kyle affects winning,” Ujiri says. “They made me understand.”

To the Raptors’ analytics group, Lowry was the most valuable player on the roster, even if a cursory glance at the team’s stats page didn’t distinguish him. It took some selling over a number of seasons, but they showed Ujiri that during Lowry’s one season in Toronto, the Raptors were decidedly better when Lowry was on the floor. Lowry-led units consistently found higher percentage shots, particularly at the rim, were constantly in transition when he was at the controls, be it after live turnovers or rebounds, and contested opponents’ attempts more effectively.

These observations conformed to the collective perception of Lowry among true believers: a stubborn, little player of limited physical and athletic attributes who seems to intuitively know how to make the right play on either end of the floor.

“I still consider that to be our finest trade,” says Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, who acquired Lowry from Memphis, where he was backing up Mike Conley. Despite draining fewer than a quarter of his 3-point attempts with the Grizzlies, Lowry was coveted by the Rockets as another potential “no-stat All-Star” to add to their collection of undervalued assets.

There are any number of NBA players who find themselves atop a metric such as real plus-minus (RPM) for a given season, only to regress the following year. This is one reason measurements that don’t rely on hard, tangible counting stats such as points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals can challenge the faith of those reading them. Buckets, rebounds, dimes — these are known entities any viewer can see and recognize.

But Lowry excels in those mysterious gifts that enable him to rank consistently as one of the more effective players in basketball, even on nights when he doesn’t score a lot or even score efficiently. The 3-for-9 line that spells horror for some players can sometimes, for Lowry, be nothing more than ugly wrapping paper that hides the real gift.

A FEW YEARS back, when Sixers guard T.J. McConnell arrived in Philadelphia, the coaching staff, including Lange, sat him down in front of video of Lowry. It was a primer on how a point guard who by the standards of NBA athleticism probably shouldn’t be playing in the league can help win games on the margins.

The pro personnel folks in the Sixers’ front office had noticed that when Lowry was on the secondary break in Houston, he’d drive the ball down the throat of a backtracking defender to about the free throw line, only to leave a pass behind him for a trailing teammate. Then — and here’s the key — he’d block the closing defender like an offensive lineman before darting out to the wing. The Rockets were generating sick offense from this maneuver because Lowry gave the trailer additional time and space to launch a shot from long range. If he didn’t, Lowry was well positioned on the wing for a shot or drive of his own.

“They wanted me to look at him because, let’s be realistic, I’m not going to be a guy who’s going to take over a game,” McConnell says. “They were saying, look what Kyle does to affect a game when he’s not looking for his shot offensively.”

“He makes basketball plays you cannot script,” Marc Gasol says.

In a league dominated by the pick-and-roll, point guards and big men are called on to defend the action as a tandem. It’s a process that relies on strength, will, timing, precision, communication, a little bit of telepathy and a whole lot of trust. For years in Memphis, one of Gasol’s primary dance partners was the almost maniacal lockdown defender Tony Allen. When Gasol came over to Toronto this past winter, he noticed that Lowry deployed a tactic while fighting over screens he’d seen only Allen use regularly.

“He’s going to avoid the screen and fight over,” Gasol says. “And he’s going to stick his arm out, which is a dangerous play for any guard. Literally stick his arm between the screener and the big. He’s never going to be one of those guys who is just going to run into the screen, ‘Oh, I got hit.'”

Among the 142 players who have defended ball handlers on at least 500 direct picks this season, Lowry ranked second in points per chance allowed, according to Second Spectrum tracking. In the six years the stat has been charted, he has never been below average, and he routinely ranks in the upper quadrant. The Raptors were the best defensive pick-and-roll team in the NBA this season, with Lowry their most common defender at the point of attack.

“You’ve got this guy who’s kind of bats— crazy and argumentative, and he gives the coaches a hard time, but he has his teammates’ backs.”

Fred VanVleet on Kyle Lowry

Lowry admits that he takes a perverse pleasure in the more extremist elements of playing NBA basketball, celebrating, by way of example, the “dish and grab.” (“If you drive right, and your big is standing to the right, dish and keep going to their big — you grab an arm, maybe pull — so that they can’t contest. You only get called for it once in a while.”)

But no task is beneath him. A teammate in a recent Raptors practice noted that in a 5-on-5 walk-through to simulate the Sixers’ offense prior to the start of the series, Lowry actually stood in for a charge — highly unusual behavior but not surprising for a player who has drawn 16 offensive fouls in nine postseason games (six more than the next player on the list, Damian Lillard).

A number of teammates and coaches emphasize that the charges drawn by Lowry are far more premeditated than the garden-variety standing in the paint in wait of an oncoming driver. Lowry cites the second quarter in Game 4 of the Orlando series, in which he and teammate Siakam coordinated their movements in anticipation that Jonathan Isaac would give Lowry an opportunity to be pancaked.

“[Isaac] went right, and Pascal ran him off,” Lowry says. “I said, ‘Pascal, go out, don’t try to get back.’ I’ll take this on my chest because I know he’s tried before. And he straight line-drive right into me.”

Siakam and the film corroborate this: Lowry was orchestrating a charge from the outset of the possession.

“When you try to count up where these extra points and possessions come from, intelligence is by far the No. 1 factor,” Lange says. “He sees the game from every angle. Not just the point guard’s vision. The wing’s vision. The big’s vision. The coach’s vision.”

AFTER GAME 4 against Orlando, Lowry texted teammate Serge Ibaka a clip of a defensive possession that left Lowry confused. The accompanying text said, “Great read, but you think you can reach your other hand up, or you’re playing the drive and ready to go up?”

Ibaka responded, “I was playing the drive, because I seen [Raptors teammate] Norm [Powell] was close to me.”

For years, Lowry carried the reputation of being one of the more cantankerous players in the league, someone who could derail a practice or walk-through with a 15-minute sidebar litigating why the proposed coverage schemes for that night’s game were designed to fail. A morning person who has long started his day early with a personal training session, Lowry could also become notoriously antsy in the early afternoon if he decided that the day’s practice had ceased to be productive.

Those who have played with Lowry emphasized that they’d never seen Lowry curse out a coach or disrespect a teammate. Rather, he simply wasn’t very good at disguising his low regard for ideas he deemed lousy. In the estimation of many who admired his work ethic and desire, Lowry was a huge pain in the ass. Today?

“I’m a very moderate pain in the ass,” Lowry says. “I think I’ve been able to articulate it better, right? I was correct. I just didn’t go about it the right way. It took me a long time to be able to speak it.”

Lowry shares his exchange with Ibaka as evidence that, on the matter of being a pain in the ass, he has polished his approach. Statements have been converted to questions; conversations that could be received as accusatory are now seen as exercises in collective problem-solving. As he has gotten older and settled into family life, he has embraced the big brother persona with younger teammates.

“You’ve got this guy who’s kind of bats— crazy and argumentative, and he gives the coaches a hard time, but he has his teammates’ backs,” VanVleet says. “I’m three years in, and I’m learning way faster. He’s just giving all that free game, and as a young player, you really admire it because he doesn’t have to do that.”

Much of Lowry’s passion on these basketball debates was born of his deep knowledge of schemes and tendencies. If Lowry behaved like the smartest person in the room, it’s because he often has been.

“If the team we were about to play was playing the night before, there was a 100 percent chance that Kyle was watching them,” says Rex Kalamian, who served as an assistant coach for three seasons in Toronto. If it were a stat tracked by the NBA, Lowry would surely be among the league leaders in Possessions Sent To Teammates and Coaches Via Mobile Device, particularly in the postseason. He is invigorated by any discussion of basketball strategy, no matter how granular.

At 33, Lowry thinks he has approximately three more years at his current level of production, but he hopes to have a soft landing as a guard whose savvy can compensate for diminishing athleticism. “Andre Miller, unbelievable, right?”

Lowry’s raw statistics, the stuff of conventional box scores, have dropped off, even as his RPM numbers are as strong as ever. Only James Harden, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard rated higher at the point guard position this season, and this is Lowry’s fourth consecutive campaign ranked in the top four (only Curry shares that distinction).

Lowry has taken criticism in recent years for the Raptors’ inability to advance deeper into the playoffs, falling each of the past three postseasons to LeBron JamesCleveland Cavaliers. After the Raptors dropped Game 3 in Philadelphia in underwhelming fashion with only Leonard playing up to par, Lowry volunteered, “I’m not helping him enough.”

With the acquisitions of Leonard, Gasol and Green, Lowry believes the Raptors are, along with the Warriors, one of the two smartest teams in the NBA. That collective intelligence, coupled with the emergence of Siakam as an industrial-sized microwave who can score at will, has alleviated much of the pressure Lowry used to endure as Toronto’s savviest and most efficient player.

For perhaps the first time in his career, Lowry is perfectly cast this postseason. His primary role isn’t to score. It’s to orchestrate a well-assembled unit on both ends, scanning the margins of the floor for every advantage, applying intellect and guile where others might rely on athleticism and id.

“I’m 33 years old, and I want to win a championship,” Lowry says. “And I think people take that for granted at times because it’s OK to say, ‘Listen, I don’t need to be The Man.’ Like me being an All-Star this year — unbelievable. I’m so happy. I wanted it — and to prove that I did it by averaging only 15 points.”

The Raptors bounced back in Game 4 on Sunday in Philadelphia, squaring the series at 2-2. Leonard scored 39 points as he continued his historic rampage through the postseason. In the fourth quarter, Lowry largely deferred to Leonard, busying himself with the defensive glass, directing traffic and other grimy household chores.

He finished with 14 points and a plus-11 in a five-point win.

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