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Toronto Raptors

Revisiting Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet's rough start to the Eastern Conference Semifinals

After Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam took over to lead the Toronto Raptors to a dominant Game 1 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, things went bad for the Raptors…and then they got worse.

In Game 2, Toronto lost the home court advantage it had worked for all season and the series shifted to Philadelphia, where the Sixers would dominate their way to a 2-1 series lead in Game 3.

The Raptors were in trouble.

At the forefront of the team's issues was the play from its point guard duo in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, who each opened the series with a few performances worth forgetting.

Lowry and VanVleet, by the numbers
Kyle Lowry 2018-19 Fred VanVleet
14.2 PTS (41.1 FG%, 34.7 3P%), 8.7 AST, 4.8 REB Regular Season 11.0 PTS (41.0 FG%, 37.8 3P%), 4.8 AST, 2.6 REB
12.0 PTS (13-37 FG, 2-14 3FG), 6.0 AST, 4.3 REB Games 1-3, Eastern Conference Semifinals 1.3 PTS (1-11 FG, 0-7 3FG), 1.3 AST, 3.0 REB

Lowry admitted as much, telling ESPN's Tim Bontemps after Game 3 that, "We've got to help (Kawhi). I was literally saying it during the game. We have to help him. He's doing everything he can possibly do offensively and defensively to f-ing win games, and myself, I'm not helping him enough.

"I'm not putting it on nobody else but me."

After opening the postseason with a scoreless performance in a loss to the Orlando Magic, this continued a series of highs and lows for the veteran point guard.

MORE: The Internet wasn't kind to Lowry after R1G1 | Was Lowry that bad in Game 1?

For VanVleet, his performance in Game 1 against the Magic had been the only relative high of the postseason. After scoring 14 points to open the postseason, VanVleet averaged just 3.7 points on .250/.118/.667 shooting splits through Game 3 of the East Semis.

Down 2-1, Toronto's back was against the wall and it was in desperate need of a win in a tough environment.

It was no secret how crucial VanVleet was to the Raptors' success throughout the 2018-19 regular season. He stepped in at whatever capacity he was needed, starting in a total of 28 games after going without a single start throughout the first two seasons of his NBA career.

Two things about VanVleet's role during the season that were particularly impressive, one being that he didn't just start at point guard in place of Lowry, he would sometimes start alongside Lowry if Kawhi missed time due to an injury or load management. The other is the rate at which he produced; opportunity played a large role in the growth, but VanVleet scored in double figures 39 times in the 2018-19 season alone after doing so just 38 times in his first two seasons combined. The Raptors record in those 39 games? 28-11.

Without a scoring punch from VanVleet and Lowry playing below his All-Star level, it felt like it didn't matter how heroic Leonard was or how Siakam complimented him, the team needed more.

The Raptors were a sum of all the parts.

Given that we know how the story eventually ends, the dire circumstances going into Game 4 are even more eye-opening in retrospect. The lacklustre performance in Game 3 was certainly enough for many to feel as though Toronto wouldn't figure it out and that Philadelphia's moves to go all-in and assemble such a talented starting lineup would pay off.

Ultimately, Lowry improving upon his play was enough to support Leonard and the Raptors until VanVleet's resurgence in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals and virtuoso play to close the postseason. That Nurse allowed VanVleet to play through his slump speaks volumes about the ways in which he was able to still have an impact while his shot wasn't falling and when it did, well, it brought the Raptors to another level.

Without the contributions of both, we wouldn't be referring to this team as defending champs.

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