Well, Kyle Lowry got a chance to get his feet wet on Wednesday in his preseason debut, and against the New York Knicks on Friday he got to show how his leadership is going to transform his new team this season.
In the second quarter, with the Raptors down 35-22 and playing sluggish at both ends of the court, Lowry checked back in with 8:13 left and completely changed the tenor of the game. He brought a relentless, harassing quality to the defense that quickly spread throughout the roster, he played aggressively with the ball, forcing action at the offensive end and by the time he hit a game-tying three-pointer at the halftime buzzer all of the game's momentum had swung Toronto's way.
In the end Lowry finished with 17 points, five assists and four rebounds and for good measure he hit 5-of-6 from behind the arc on the game. He brought an energy that the Raptors have sorely lacked for several seasons running and he made it perfectly clear why the club was so enthusiastic when they traded for him this summer.
Interestingly, though, Lowry's reappearance in the second quarter basically spelled the end of the night for DeMar DeRozan. While DeMar still played plenty of minutes the rest of the game, he simply rarely saw the ball. Without having plays run specifically for him he had trouble finding a way to impact the game offensively. He had a couple of opportunities on breakaways, including one slam off of an impressive behind-the-back pass from Landry Fields, but totally disappeared otherwise. The two of them finding offensive chemistry isn't going to happen overnight, but it will be a key ingredient to this team's success as both are expected to play most of their minutes together as a part of the team's starting unit.
In terms of good chemistry, Andrea Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas continue to grow together as a tandem up front for the Raptors. Bargnani finally got on track scoring (despite 8-of-21 shooting) by netting 20 points, but more impressively were his seven rebounds and three blocks, one of which came against Tyson Chandler and another coming against Amar'e Stoudemire. Bargnani's defense continued to be his strong suit in preseason (seriously) and he and Valanciunas are figuring out how to make life difficult for their opponents under the basket with their length and athleticism.
Valanciunas finally had a game with some foul trouble, he picked up five, with a couple coming from the kind of rookie mistakes that people expected far more of this season, but he was able to stay on the court in the fourth quarter and had a very strong impact on the game at both ends without ever picking up his sixth and final foul. in 24 minutes Valanciunas managed to grab 10 rebounds and virtually every Raptors play down the stretch began with a Lowry and Valanciunas pick-and-roll, the kind of bread and butter scheme works so well because Valanciunas sets such good screens followed by hard rolls while Lowry has the quickness and shooting ability to exploit various defensive reactions to the play. While Bargnani will be the primary offensive threat for the Raptors this season, the Lowry-Valanciunas pick-and-roll will probably be the team's most run play because of the options it opens all over the court.
On the negative side was the play of Terrence Ross and Linas Kleiza, two players that have yet to make a real mark so far in preseason play. Ross only managed 5 minutes in the game, and far too frequently bit on pump fakes on the perimeter to warrant more playing time on the night. He's also been having trouble connecting on his jumper and if he cannot get his game on track he'll enter the regular season behind the steadier Alan Anderson until he can provide more productive minutes for the club than he's shown thus far.
More disappointing has been Kleiza, though. He just looks like a player without a role on this team right now. He should be the team's primary offensive contributor off of the bench, but his shot has been off all preseason and against New York he was forcing things terribly whenever he saw the ball. With Casey seeing positive results from two point guard lineups, minutes for guys like Ross and Kleiza are going to evaporate unless the coach feels that they can provide him with something that they haven't showed so far this month.
The fact is that preseason is a time when coaches get to see which players are going to force their way into a rotation and which players are going to fail to rise to the occasion. Perhaps no player has done more to help their stock than John Lucas III in that regard for Toronto, as he's given the team help in two crucial areas, ball handling and three-point shooting, and he's forced Casey to find him minutes despite have two standout playmakers in front of him on the roster. He's warranted the club's experiments with two point guard looks and for the most part those lineups have been more productive than lineup configurations featuring Ross and Kleiza. Both of those guys may seem like they are more crucial components to the team's makeup, but if they can't give the team what they need and Lucas can then guess who's going to be seeing more minutes on the court this season.
Next week we should see Casey start to really finalize his playing rotations as the club is eleven days away from opening night. It'll be interesting to see who is left on the outside looking in because this roster still has holes in it and the guys that didn't earn consistent minutes could find themselves headed for the trading block early in the 2012-13 campaign.