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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors don’t believe in statement games, and why should they? After winning the NBA championship a year ago, they’ve more than proven themselves worthy of defending it this season.

When the campaign came to an abrupt halt nearly five months ago they were the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, third-best in the whole league, and were ahead of their own pace from the year prior.

If there was any question about who they were and how good they could be, it certainly wasn’t coming from anybody in their locker room. There aren’t many clubs that have established and embraced an identity quite like the Raptors.

They play hard, don’t quit, defend better than almost anybody else, and they’re in it for more than just one game, or one win. That doesn’t mean they can’t recognize and rise to a big moment, though. They may not believe in statement games, but they sure have a flair for the dramatic.

“I don't think anybody's going to pay much attention, they don't ever seem to, but it's OK,” said head coach Nick Nurse, following Toronto’s impressive 107-92 victory over the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers in its season re-opener on Saturday.

“Seriously man, we love to play the games and we like to compete, we know we're tough to beat, we really do, and I think there's a ceiling we can get to yet.”

The Raptors were led, as they usually are, by Kyle Lowry – a man on a mission Saturday night, and from the moment he arrived in the NBA bubble.

With the spotlight shining bright on Toronto’s first game of the restart – it was being broadcast nationally in the U.S. on ESPN – Lowry put on a show. Not only did he outplay the Lakers’ superstar duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, he nearly outpaced them himself – scoring 33 points and grabbing a career-best 14 rebounds, compared to 34 points and 16 boards from James and Davis combined.

“Nick says he’s gonna ease us back in and use it as exhibition but our competitive spirit, we have too many competitive guys out there that want to go out there and play and hoop and win games,” Lowry said. “Especially playing against a team like the Lakers, a team that is No. 1 in the West. The competitive juices get going.”

Lowry was brilliant. When the Raptors’ offence was sputtering along through the first three quarters, he put them on his shoulders – getting to the rim or the line, where he attempted 15 free throws. When he felt the momentum slipping away he took a charge or fought for a loose ball. When the game was in the balance, he hit big shots and made winning plays.

“He was vintage Kyle tonight,” Nurse said. “He was scoring and flying around and taking charges and competing and getting us some critical buckets and keeping things ticking over. He was great.”

These resilient 2019-20 Raptors were born in a game against the Lakers nearly nine months ago. It was November 10 – the ninth game of the season, but it was the first night we really found out what this team was made out of.

Lowry and Serge Ibaka had just gotten hurt a couple days earlier. They were going to miss extended time and, to make matters worse, Nurse didn’t trust his young bench.

“We all didn’t think we were very deep at all a couple weeks ago,” he said just before that game in L.A. “I’ve been saying we got eight guys I really like and three guys are missing [from the rotation]. So, I’m gonna have to start liking a few more guys here pretty quickly. This is their chance.”

In what could have been called a statement game at the time, the undermanned Raptors shocked the Lakers, who were 7-1 and undefeated at home going into that contest. It was the night they found out they’ve got more depth than anybody realized. It was a character win and maybe the most emblematic victory of their season so far. It set the tone for who they would become.

On Saturday, 266 days later, they reinforced it against that same Lakers team. Despite everything that’s happened in the world during that time, the Raptors’ identity hasn’t changed.

Their second-ranked defence held the Lakers to a season-low 35 per cent shooting. Davis – who scored just 14 points, nearly half his season average – only attempted seven shots. Former Raptor Danny Green was held scoreless in almost 20 minutes.

“I think they’re a great team,” James said. “They won a championship for a reason, and it wasn’t just all solely because of Kawhi [Leonard], and obviously you see that… That’s why they’ve been the team that they’ve been all year.

"Great team, no if's, and's or but's. Well coached. Championship DNA. The media may not give them as much credit because Kawhi is gone but players know what type of team they are."

OG Anunoby was excellent as the primary defender on James and also contributed 23 important points on 8-of-9 shooting. After a slow start, Pascal Siakam (15 points and nine rebounds) made some big plays down the stretch. Fred VanVleet had a double-double of 13 points and 11 assists. But the night belonged to Lowry.

The 34-year-old doesn’t just look refreshed after the hiatus, but he seems focused. He’s fully committed to leading the Raptors back to the Finals, but his purpose in Orlando is bigger than basketball.

In a powerful moment during the pre-game anthems, both teams linked arms and took a knee to peacefully protest social injustice and anti-Black racism, as other clubs have been doing since the season resumed on Thursday. What’s unique about this demonstration is that it was the first to include both the U.S. and Canadian anthems.

Lowry, his teammates, fellow NBA players as well as coaches and personnel around the league are united in their goal – to use this platform and the spotlight of the restart to amplify the message, fight for social justice, and inspire meaningful change. More than anything else, that’s what’s fuelling the Raptors’ all-star point guard.

“I just want to win games, have an opportunity to go out there and play for my teammates, have an opportunity to go out there and play basketball and have an opportunity to go out here and spread our social messages that we have, Black Lives Matter,” Lowry said. “Go out there and talk about voter suppression. Those are the things that are getting me going right now – education reform, worrying about getting justice for Breonna Taylor. These things are all things that are getting me going and have me out there doing the best I can.”​