TORONTO – It didn’t take long for Fred VanVleet to earn Kyle Lowry’s respect.
It was the first practice on the first day of VanVleet’s first NBA training camp back in 2016, and the 22-year-old undrafted rookie went right at the Raptors’ all-star point guard. He didn’t back down, and Lowry immediately took notice.
“It was kinda like a real recognize real moment,” VanVleet told TSN recently. “I think he saw [some of himself] in me.”
“I used to keep them on the same team [in practice] to avoid some of those skirmishes,” Nick Nurse joked.
So, when the long-time teammates and close friends finally got the chance to face each other in a real game six years later, it was hardly a surprise to see VanVleet go toe-to-toe with his mentor and not give him an inch.
“That’s what respect looks like,” said VanVleet, who scored 29 points in Sunday’s game, though Lowry’s Miami Heat came away with the 114-109 win in his long awaited and much anticipated return to Toronto. “Obviously I wanted to give him my best and he deserves that. He brings out a different competitive edge in me, and one of the reasons why I have been able to grow as a player in this league is because he set the bar so high.”
It was a special night at Scotiabank Arena, a celebration of Lowry and everything he meant, and continues to mean, to the franchise and its fans. Back in the city he called home for nine historic seasons for the first time since joining the Heat as a free agent over the summer, the 36-year-old Raptors icon got the hero’s welcome he deserved.
The ovations started when he left the court following warm-ups and continued on throughout the evening. Lowry mostly held it together after his video tribute played during line-up introductions, as he promised he would, but he could feel the love from the sell-out crowd, who stood and cheered in appreciation for more than two minutes. It would’ve gone on even longer if there wasn’t a game to get to.
“It meant the world to me,” Lowry said afterwards. “The first time is always special. You don’t forget that.”
VanVleet had his own welcome planned. Now an all-star in his own right, the 28-year-old was matched up with Lowry from the jump and wasted no time in sending a message. It was going to be a long night.
It was the real life embodiment of the Spiderman meme, with a couple like-minded competitors going back and forth. There are no secrets there. After sharing the court for five seasons in Toronto, after winning a championship together, they know each other’s tricks. Still, familiarity didn’t make it any easier for either player to get an edge. They’re too smart, too crafty, and they play far too hard for that.
“They obviously know each other’s games and I thought they both played great,” Nurse said. “They were both guarding and scoring and passing and doing everything they could to will their teams to a win.”
“It was fun to compete against him,” said VanVleet. “I know him really, really well and he knows me really, really well. I was happy he got that tribute from the fans, but I obviously did not want him to leave this building with a win.”
A few minutes into the game, Lowry pulled up from just inside of the logo and subtly threw his body into another former teammate, Khem Birch, drawing a foul and earning three free throws. Moments later, VanVleet did the exact same thing, drawing the foul on Heat centre Bam Adebayo. Then, he drove into Lowry, who went vertical at the rim, and finished through contact, just as his processor has done so many times before.
VanVleet came into Sunday’s game needing three more three-pointers to break the Raptors franchise record for most treys in a season, set by Lowry in 2017-18. It only took him six minutes and three attempts to get it done, and he did it with Lowry on the floor. He scored 17 first-quarter points and had 21 by halftime.
With Miami on a run and taking its first lead since the opening minutes, VanVleet tied the game at 71 points apiece on a pull-up three-pointer in transition – another Lowry staple – in the third quarter. On the following possession, he drew another shooting foul, this time on a step-back three.
While the Raptors hung around late in the fourth quarter, even extending the game a few times after it looked like Miami was going to pull away, the Heat’s hot shooting was too much. Lowry finished with 16 points, six rebounds and 10 assists on 4-of-8 shooting in 35 minutes – a very Lowry-like line – but it was his new teammates, particularly Max Strus and Victor Oladipo, that were the difference. Combined, those two shot 13-for-18 from beyond the arc. It’s hard to overcome that.
Even with Miami coming off a win in Chicago the night before, and missing key rotation players, including Jimmy Butler and P.J. Tucker, Toronto suffered its first loss in six games.
“That version of him, obviously we have seen it countless times,” VanVleet said of Lowry. “Where they have an undermanned team and he comes in on the second night of a back-to-back and beats one of the hottest teams in the league. That’s Kyle Lowry right there, and that version of him is probably the best version of him.”
However, Lowry’s legacy, the legacy that was celebrated on Sunday night, lives on in this current iteration of the Raptors through the many qualities that he shares with VanVleet.
Like it did for so many years under Lowry’s leadership, this Toronto team goes to battle every night. It doesn’t back down. It doesn’t quit.
“They play hard every night,” Lowry said. “They're all over the place, they scramble, they’re athletic, they help each other very well, they don't give up much. They remind me a lot of [how we used to play], finding ways to win games – scrap and claw and find a way. That's what these guys do. There's never a moment where they just don't feel like they can win the game.”
With four regular season games remaining, they need just two more wins or Cavaliers losses to clinch a top-six seed in the East and a guaranteed spot in the playoffs, which is more than most people expected from them after Lowry left for Miami and they committed to their young core. But Lowry says he’s not surprised, and you’re inclined to believe him. It was time to move on, time for Lowry to go somewhere he could compete for another title in the near future and time for him to pass the torch to VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and the next generation of Raptors stars, but he knew he was leaving the organization in good hands.
More often than not, teams adopt a playing personality from their best and most important player. For nearly a decade, the Raptors were crafted in Lowry’s image. Now, VanVleet is their lifeblood, but it’s the same D.N.A.
“If you guys watch him and see what he did tonight, how aggressive and how assertive he was, that’s just who he is,” Lowry said. “That’s why I was able to pass the torch to someone like that. I’m happy to have done that.”
“Now it’s his chance to be the guy and he’s doing that at a high level. It’s pretty cool to watch.”