Last night, Kyle Lowry returned after missing the previous 18 games with a wrist injury. In his absence the Raptors managed to go 14-7, including an 8-2 stretch in their last 10 games. The Raptors were playing well without Lowry but now, with perhaps their most important player returning, they may pose the biggest challenge to the defending champion Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.
Lowry wasted no time getting back to business, putting up 27 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds in 42 minutes (wowza!) in a 105-102 victory over the Pistons. That's a great stat line for Lowry's first game back but that's a lot of minutes to play after missing 18 games. However, his minutes seem less troubling since he was out for a wrist injury rather than a leg or other body issue. He seemed to be in game shape so I see no reason to question it.
In these last few regular season games, Dwayne Casey needs to do his best to work Lowry back into the offense, a task that may be harder than it sounds. Because of his injury, last night was the first game Lowry has played with either of the Raptors trade deadline acquisitions, PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka. Tucker should be able to easily adjust to the return of Lowry as he is a defensive specialist who can knock down open shots but doesn't need the ball. Ibaka on the other hand is an integral part of the Raptors' offense and will need to get a better feel for playing with Lowry if the Raptors want to make some noise in the playoffs. Ibaka had one of his worst games in a Raptors uniform, shooting 2/9 and ending up with only 7 points. While the end result was a victory last night, the Raptors entered the 4th quarter trailing by 12, so there is clearly work to be done.
The main issue with the Raptors' need to rework Lowry into the offense is their lack of time. They don't have time for growing pains. At this point in the season, the Raptors just need to do anything they can to avoid the Cavaliers until the Eastern Conference Finals, especially considering what Cleveland did to the Celtics last night in Boston. Assuming the Cavaliers are able to grab the 1 seed, which is still uncertain, the Raptors need to beat out the Wizards for the 3 seed. While the 3 seed would allow the Raptors to avoid the Cavaliers until the ECF, it may come with a tougher first round opponent. With the 5-8 seeds still being determined in the East, there is good reason to worry about potential opponents. A matchup with the free falling Atlanta Hawks or the consistently inconsistent Indiana Pacers or Chicago Bulls would be encouraging for the Raptors. However, a matchup with the Miami Heat or Milwaukee Bucks would be a nightmare for any of the top 4 seeds in the East. While first round matchups in the East have been more of a tuneup for the top seeds in recent years, these two teams pose a legitimate threat to whoever they might play. The Heat are 27-10 since starting the season 11-30 and the Bucks are 17-8 since inserting Thon Maker into the starting lineup. Both of these teams are getting hot at the right time and are certainly capable of winning a couple games or potentially a series in the playoffs. While the Raptors may pose the biggest threat to the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, they need to be ready to take care of business in the first two rounds so that they can even have a shot at the defending champs.