TORONTO — With just more than four and a half minutes left and the Toronto Raptors nursing a 97-94 edge over division rival Boston, budding Celtics star Jayson Tatum had a 1-on-1 matchup against Danny Green on the right wing. Green cheated left, allowing Tatum to get to his dominant hand with a potential path to the basket. But the opportunity to trim the deficit or even tie the score on that possession vanished in an instant, when Kyle Lowry, the Raptors’ All-Star guard, swiftly slid in front of Tatum, drawing a charging violation.
On the left wing just over two minutes later, with Toronto leading by five, nearly the exact same scenario played out: Tatum got a step on Kawhi Leonard after a well-executed flare screen and barreled into the paint, only to meet Lowry, who’d gotten there a hair quicker. Offensive foul; Raptors’ ball. The play essentially ended any hope of a Boston comeback in the Oct. 19 Toronto win.
Somehow, in a league flowing with more 3-pointers than we’ve ever seen, Lowry has found a way to make momentum-shifting plays without hitting dagger jumpers. Instead, he’s taking dagger charges — stifling an opponent’s last-ditch comeback efforts. He all but sealed Wednesday’s victory by taking one against Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox with a little more than three minutes left. Three days prior, he drew one on the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma in the final two minutes of an eventual win in Los Angeles.
“It just feels like he always takes them at the right moment, when the other team has some momentum going,” point guard Delon Wright, one of Lowry’s backups, told me after the team’s Monday win in Utah. “He steps in there and gets the call, and it’s kind of defeating for the other team.”
There’s no doubt that Lowry has impeccable timing on such plays, and not just in the waning minutes of close games. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, Lowry has drawn a league-high 49 charges — an eye-popping number for anyone, but especially for someone who earns upwards of $30 million a year and plays a position that isn’t known for welcoming physical punishment. Nonetheless, this past Sunday, he drew one on runaway freight train LeBron James, who enjoys an 8-inch, 45-pound advantage on the 6-foot Lowry.
“You get hit in the private area. You might get hit in the gut,” said Lowry, who also led the NBA in assists heading into Thursday’s games with 135 — a whopping 38 more than Jrue Holiday, who ranked second. “You’ve just got to be willing to take the hit and can’t be scared of the consequences. You’ve gotta say, ‘All right, cool — I’m willing to do to help my team win games.’”
Not everyone is an ideal candidate to take charges. Aside from the fact that certain players are horrible at selling officials on bang-bang plays of that nature, there’s also the possibility of getting hurt, all for the sake of trying to force a single turnover.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse doesn’t seem too worried when Lowry puts himself in harm’s way — largely because he’s shown an expertise in knowing how to do it.
“His instincts are unbelievable. He sees that stuff coming way ahead of time and gets himself in position. That’s just being a super smart, high-IQ player,” Nurse said. “He’s pretty good at knowing how to take them. Every now and then, he takes a pretty crushing blow. But you know how it is: The good [charge-takers] kind of start to fall just before they take a hit, and hopefully don’t get hurt on those [sorts of plays]. But his instincts to play hard amaze me almost nightly.”
While taking that many charges speaks to Lowry’s next-level anticipation, the teamwide strategies of the 11-1 Raptors — still incorporating two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard — are playing a role here as well. Toronto has had a help defender, the one most often in position to draw a charge, present during an opposing player’s drive to the basket 36 percent of the time, the NBA’s third-highest rate, according to Second Spectrum.
When Lowry is the player serving as the help defender, the club allows just 0.86 points per direct drive — a number that would lead the league if it carried over for all team minutes. This is part of why the Raptors figure to be such a tough out, especially now with Leonard in the fold: Lowry, Green, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka can all slide over and at least hinder, if not completely halt, the progress of a player trying to get to the rim.
As for Lowry himself — who’s taken more charges this year than 23 entire teams — his knack for generating these types of turnovers can be traced to Villanova, where he played for Jay Wright. Villanova started a program known as the Attitude Club, a point-based recognition system that rewards players for different types of hustle plays, including diving for loose balls, tapping back an offensive rebound and, yes, drawing charges on defense.
Lowry said he took charges even during his high school days but became more committed to it during college and upon reaching the NBA, where it’s nearly impossible for him — at his size — to make the sorts of high-flying plays that can truly ignite a crowd.
“I can’t normally block a shot, and I can’t energize my team with a crazy dunk,” he said. “But I can take a charge at a big moment in a game, and I think my teammates appreciate me laying myself out there. That’s my energizing play.”
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