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Another Kyle Lowry playoff failure would put the Raptors' future in doubt

If Toronto falls flat in the first round, Toronto might have second thoughts about continuing with the status quo at the price it’ll cost.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Lowry isn’t known for his hot starts in NBA playoff runs. He was famously abysmal during the Raptors’ cardiac series against the Pacers in the first round a year ago (31 percent shooting, 14 points per game) before showing out against the Heat and Cavaliers. He stayed true to form on Saturday, shooting 2-of-11 as Toronto lost by 14 to the Milwaukee Bucks.

That was just one game, not seven. And Toronto did win its first two series last season despite losing Game 1 at home. But unless Lowry gets back on track quickly, this could be a different story.

The Raptors weren’t facing a player of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s caliber last season. Toronto wasn’t facing such a strange, idiosyncratic defense. The Raptors can absolutely lose this series if Lowry doesn’t get Toronto’s usually excellent offense on track immediately.

Lowry has a valid excuse for his poor play: he just returned to action after February surgery on his wrist. He’s allowed to be rusty. He’s allowed to adjust his game as necessary. But Antetokounmpo, the Bucks, nor fate will go easy on him because he’s recovering from injury. That’s not how basketball works.

The basketball world is watching how the Bucks and fate treat Lowry in this series mighty closely.

Lowry is a free agent this offseason. (He has a player option for $12 million for the 2017-18 season, but that’s $12-20 million under his market value. He’ll be a free agent.)

The Raptors will want to re-sign him without question. Lowry has been integral to the franchise’s best era in 15 years (maybe ever), and the point guard market is quite limited beyond Chris Paul. Cory Joseph is a good NBA backup point guard, but he doesn’t inspire confidence as a starter for a team seeking title contention.

Plus, Lowry is very close to DeMar DeRozan, who the Raptors signed to a $139 million contract last summer.

The question is whether Lowry’s salary demands will meet the Raptors’ comfort level.

That was also a question a year ago as DeRozan became a free agent. Toronto offered a historically large contract (one subsequently superseded by the Grizzlies’ contract with Mike Conley). There’s a difference here, though: DeRozan was 26 years old and on the rise as a top-flight scorer. Lowry is 31 with a speckled injury history.

Again, without question, the Raptors will want to re-sign Lowry. But will the Raptors be willing to spend what Lowry wants? DeRozan signed for just less than the max, but he still had something to prove and can expect another massive contract when this one ends, if all goes according to plan.

This will be Lowry’s last huge contract in all likelihood, and Lowry hasn’t actually had a deal befitting of his contributions to date in the NBA. Lowry signed a four-year, $48 million deal with Toronto in 2014, when he was at roughly the same stage of his career that DeRozan had been a year ago when he signed the $139 million deal. In discrete terms, $48 million — which is actually $36 million since Lowry will decline his player option — is generational wealth. But it’s not $139 million. That’s the kind of dough Lowry is looking for now.

Will Toronto pay it? What if the Raptors bow out to Giannis and the Bucks as Lowry continues to struggle? Will Toronto and Lowry come close on contract terms?

While the huge DeRozan contract indicates the Raptors are willing to invest heavily in this core, DeRozan and Lowry are at different stages of their careers. On top of that, an early exit from the playoffs would represent a serious regression. Toronto won 56 games and made the conference finals a year ago. The Raptors claimed 51 games this season, and not making it back to East finals would be a real disappointment. It’s quite different to invest in a rising status quo rather than in one that is declining.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri is too smart to base such a major decision on one game or one series. But the Raptors’ Game 1 woes are microcosms of the team’s repeated failure to grasp its potential at every opportunity. If Ujiri decides that has become part of the roster’s DNA, it’ll be difficult to invest more than $100 million in Lowry this summer.

Just about every game in the playoffs has a lot riding on the results of its first-round series. That’s especially true for the Raptors, as well. Failure here could remake the identity of the team and put an All-Star point guard in play in free agency.

Everyone’s paying attention to Toronto now.