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Kyle Lowry’s foul trouble is the hidden key to the 2019 NBA Finals

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Toronto can’t beat Golden State if Kyle Lowry is in foul trouble, but asking him to stay out of it isn’t so simple.

At age 33, Kyle Lowry may not even be a below-average NBA point guard if not for his willingness to turn every other possession into a car crash. He invites those who outweigh him by 40 pounds into one violent collision after another. When they refuse to take the bait, he brings the action to them, shoving and thwacking with artful sidewinders that give the Toronto Raptors a subtle advantage in moments that ultimately separate victory from defeat. Whether he’s using his body as a brick wall or selling it out, Lowry turns physical sacrifice into a form of art.

Unfortunately, not everything he does is, well, legal.

In the NBA Finals, Lowry’s most indelible quality has mutated into his own kryptonite. The physicality, force, and irritable personality of his game usually works in concert to push the Raptors in a positive direction, but over the past two games, Lowry’s aggression has led to 11 personal fouls. He only needed 27 minutes to foul out of Game 2, and his 80 total personal fouls lead all players in the playoffs. Since 2001, Derek Fisher is the only guard to commit more fouls in a single postseason: 83 in 2010. In these playoffs, the next highest foul count by a guard is Stephen Curry, with 60.

Zoom out on his entire career and Lowry’s tango with foul trouble is nothing new. He played 71 fourth-quarter minutes during the 2015-16 postseason with at least four fouls, which led all players.

But the contrast this year has been especially stark. In 65 regular-season games, Lowry only fouled out once and finished with four or more fouls 16 times. In 20 playoff games, he’s fouled out twice and finished with more than four fouls 13 times. Put another way: over the past three regular seasons, Lowry has only played 13 fourth-quarter minutes with five fouls. In the playoffs that number is 18, second only to Draymond Green’s 23.

“It is tricky out there. We have been in some foul trouble in the playoffs a bit with certain guys,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said before Game 2 when I asked about Lowry’s predicament. “It’s strange because it doesn’t seem like you’re ever in foul trouble in the regular season.”

Not every foul on Lowry is obvious or even correct. His defense thrives in grey areas where split-second decisions are made by referees that can’t bat 1.000. That’s the edge he chooses to live on, and it’s what makes him effective. When those calls go his way, they’re powerful enough to shift an entire game’s momentum.

But when they don’t, the unnecessary reach-ins pile up and cost Toronto dearly. Here’s a sequence from Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, where Lowry sells out to take two charges in five seconds. The result, instead, was his fourth foul; he eventually fouled out with 6:12 in the game.

“Some of the fouls, I don’t agree with, but they’re called,” Lowry said after Game 2. I followed up by asking how they impact his ability to play how he wants. “A lot,” he said, then paused for emphasis. “A lot. It affects a lot. It takes me off the floor … I’m not trying to get in trouble but a couple of them I didn’t think I fouled but they were called. You’ve got to keep moving on. At the end of the day I’ve gotta put myself in a better position not to foul.”

One of the plays Lowry surely has a problem with can be seen below. He’s taken 15 charges in the playoffs, which is more than every team except the Warriors, and this could have been No. 16. Instead of DeMarcus Cousins picking up his second foul and two points getting wiped off Golden State’s ledger, Lowry got his third.

Warriors fans will counter with this sequence from Game 1, in which Lowry got a charge call to draw Draymond Green’s third foul at the end of the half.

But that’s the point: Lowry lives in that gray area.

“I know, one, he’s a great charge-taker, right, and I know one of them was possibly a charge, block/charge and those are tough, they go each way,” Nurse said after the game. “But maybe that sixth one, I didn’t really see it in the game. So in the back court, probably 80 feet or so from the basket, those are ones you got to be careful, especially when you got five.”

Here is that sixth foul. Nurse is right. If Toronto wants to end Golden State’s dynasty, these mistakes need to be corrected.

It’s strange to see someone as instinctually sound deliberately make so many bone-headed decisions. Lowry’s commitment to never give up on a play is admirable, but in the playoffs, it’s been a defect. He isn’t willing to let anyone score easy points, no matter the time, score, or his own foul situation.

Here was his sixth foul in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. He sacrificed himself to not let Giannis Antetokounmpo get two easy points.

“In Game 1 he took a few that we need to do better,” Nurse said. “He was the first one down the floor and they ran a big down. Our bigs just weren’t getting down there quick enough to kind of do the exchange back, and they threw it long. He’s valuing every possession. So he grabbed them so they wouldn’t just lay it in.”

It’s always important for Lowry to be on the floor. His plus/minus in this series doesn’t reflect his value – mostly because Fred VanVleet is a 900-degree oven right now – but Toronto is +122 with him on the floor and -21 when he sits throughout the entire postseason. Having a human telestrator who can lead teammates through each defensive possession is particularly critical against one of the most fluid, unpredictable, and overwhelming offensive teams ever assembled.

The Raptors need to be as flexible as possible, and Lowry’s tangible impact allows that, be it when switched onto a larger player, or knowing when to help off a non-shooter to road block an open lane. Watch how tight his rotations are when matched up against Alfonzo McKinnie. In the first play, he times his help perfectly to stop DeMarcus Cousins from driving baseline past Marc Gasol.

And below, he knew the Raptors weren’t switching the Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll, so when Curry gave it up, Lowry was perfectly positioned to take a charge on Green, giving him no choice but to kick out to McKinnie.

Asking Lowry to be less aggressive on defense is like telling John Mulaney to tell fewer jokes during a standup set. But there’s a fine line that Lowry has chosen to cross in the playoffs, for whatever reason. Late in the second quarter of Game 2, he picked up his second foul trying to steal the ball from Green on a rebound.

After the game, Danny Green described this particular foul as “wrong place, wrong time.” With Golden State in the bonus, Lowry shouldn’t be sticking his hand in the cookie jar like that. But Green also acknowledged the need to not overcorrect Lowry.

“That’s gonna happen, but we still want him to be aggressive and defensively be that helpside guy that we need him to be,” Green said. “Scrapping, boxing out, and taking charges.”

Still, the risk/reward in this case and many others’ just isn’t worth it. Lowry needs to show restraint on plays like this so he can unleash his full self-sacrificial self in the fourth quarter of the most important games of his career.

“You got to play physical basketball but you gotta be able to adjust and all those kind of things and try to stay out of it,” Nurse said. “And you got to avoid the silly ones, too.”