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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – Kyle Lowry wasn’t especially chatty at media day back in the fall.

It was the first day back at work after a divisive summer of business for the Toronto Raptors and their all-star point guard was still soured over the trade of his best friend.

DeMar DeRozan was not happy with team president Masai Ujiri. Showing loyalty to his friend and long-time teammate, Lowry stood by him, even if it made for some awkward office politics. Lowry went months without speaking to Ujiri.

Still, nobody inside the organization – players, coaches or execs – seemed too worried about it. After years in the trenches together, they’ve gotten to know Lowry and what drives him.

Lowry is an emotional and passionate person, just as he’s an emotional and passionate player. He’s almost always at odds with somebody – whether it’s a coach for a play call he doesn’t like, or a member of the media over a question, tweet or story he doesn’t agree with. He’ll be mad and he’ll let you know about it. In time, he’ll move on to the next gripe.

However, the moment he puts on the jersey, none of that matters. Lowry’s competitive spirit is second to none, and at the end of the day you can bank on one thing: he’ll do whatever it takes to win. 

So, when he was asked about his mindset on the eve of training camp, his answer shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

“I'm here to do my job,” Lowry said that morning in late-September. “One thing about me is I've always been prepared to come in and try to win a championship. My mindset never changes: Come to work for the Toronto Raptors, try to win a gold ball. That's the same as it's been since my first year here. That's been my sentiment: Trying to win a gold ball here.”
Lowry was asked 15 questions in that press conference. He used the word “championship,” or a variation of it, 13 times.

***

Eight months later, Lowry was front and centre when the Raptors were awarded the silver Eastern Conference championship trophy moments after their series-clinching Game 6 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night. It wasn’t the “gold ball” that he had been dreaming of and striving for, but it’s a significant milestone nonetheless.

Like the franchise he’s bled for – literally, in many cases – the 33-year-old point guard is about to make his NBA Finals debut. Fittingly, Lowry was the first player to lift the trophy and the last to hold it as his team walked off the court and into the locker room.

“I saw him tearing up a little bit,” Fred VanVleet said. “He probably won’t admit it.”

With DeRozan dealt for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green over the summer, and Jonas Valanciunas flipped for Marc Gasol at the trade deadline, Lowry is now the longest-serving member of the Raptors, and it’s not even close. He’s played seven seasons in Toronto. The next longest-tenured player, Norman Powell, has played four. Lowry is the only Raptor that predates the Ujiri era.

Lowry and the Raptors share an important, albeit complicated history.

After a failed attempt to recruit Steve Nash as a free agent in the summer of 2012, former general manager Bryan Colangelo acquired Lowry from Houston. The cost was minimal. At 26 and just entering his prime, Lowry still had plausible upside, but he came with a reputation. He was an oft-injured guard who couldn’t hold a starting job and clashed with coaches.

Sure enough, his first year in Toronto played out that way. He arrived at camp out of shape, got hurt early in the season, lost his job to Jose Calderon and butted heads with Dwane Casey.

When Ujiri took the Raptors gig the following summer, he famously challenged Lowry to channel some of those qualities that had been getting in his way into being a better leader. 

However, with Toronto leaning towards a rebuild a few months into the 2013-14 season and his good friend Rudy Gay already on the move, the writing was on the wall: Lowry would be the next to go. Ujiri had agreed to a deal that would have sent Lowry to New York in exchange for younger players and picks. The point guard had his bags packed. Then Knicks owner 

James Dolan backed out, gun-shy after Ujiri had fleeced him in the Carmelo Anthony trade with Denver a couple of years earlier.

So, in a contract year, Lowry figured he’d make the most out of what he assumed would be his final season in Toronto. In doing so, he and DeRozan both blossomed into stars and, unbeknownst to them at the time, would go on to spearhead the most successful run in franchise history.

The stocky, undersized point guard that nobody wanted had finally found a home. He hired a personal chef and whipped himself into shape. He became a father to sons Karter and Kameron. He matured, both on and off the court.

Lowry is usually the smallest player on the floor and he’s never been the most athletic or even the quickest. However, what he lacks in size or speed he more than makes up for with effort and intelligence. Lowry remains one of the smartest players in the league and his motor never stops. He probably won’t out-jump you, but he’ll out-think and out-work you.

He’s a polarizing player among fans because his value isn’t always reflected on a typical box score, especially as he’s shifted to more of a table-setting role next to Leonard this season. But whether he’s scoring or shooting the ball well, he almost always finds a way to have a positive influence on the game. 

No Raptors player has ever had a bigger impact on winning than Lowry, who is the franchise’s all-time leader in win shares.

He didn’t make his first All-Star Game until his ninth NBA season, now he’s made five straight. He’s led the Raptors to the playoffs in six consecutive seasons. As he grew and got better, so did his team.

“Just talk about what that guy’s been through throughout his career, the ups and the downs, going from Memphis-to-Houston-to-here,” VanVleet said. “I remember him telling me stories about when he first got here, you know, how it was ‘Tank for [Andrew] Wiggins’. That was not that long ago when you really think about it in the franchise’s life. And to be here today, for him to work his way into the player that he’s worked himself into is really, really special. And to have a chance to win a ring, for any point guard, that’s all you can ask for.”

***

The Knicks deal that fell apart in the eleventh hour wasn’t the only thing that threatened to cut their partnership short.

As a free agent in the summer of 2017, Lowry reportedly hoped to land with a different team. However, with limited options in a dried up point guard market, he opted to re-sign with the Raptors, who offered him a three-year, $100 million contract.

After getting swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second straight year, Ujiri was determined to move either DeRozan or Lowry last summer. Both players were shopped together and separately in various trade packages and scenarios, some of which would have launched Toronto into a rebuild. When the deal for Leonard opened up, with the Spurs targeting DeRozan, Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster moved to get it done and Lowry remained a Raptor.

As Shams Charania of The Athletic reported earlier this month, Ujiri and Lowry met just ahead of the Feb. 7 deadline. It was their first sit-down conversation since the DeRozan deal.

Like that first meeting they had, when Ujiri challenged Lowry years earlier, the Raptors president was direct. He told Lowry that his name had come up in recent discussions with other teams and asked him if he wanted to be dealt, according to sources. The caveat was: if you’re in, you need to be all-in.

It was a positive and productive chat in which both parties opened up and spoke earnestly about the events that got them there. The two shook hands and Lowry vowed that he was fully on board. His play and the way he has conducted himself off the court since then reflect that sentiment.

***

The narrative that Lowry shrinks in the playoffs or in big games isn’t just a tired one, it’s factually incorrect.

Over his last 47 postseason games, dating back to 2016, Lowry is averaging 17.6 points on 46 per cent from the field and 39 per cent from three-point range – virtually identical to his regular season numbers over that span.

In 12 Conference Finals games with the Raptors – against Cleveland in 2016 and this most recent series against Milwaukee – Lowry is averaging 19.7 points on 47 per cent from the field and 40 per cent from three.

And those are just his scoring/shooting numbers, which only represent a fraction of his overall worth. Over the last four postseasons, the Raptors have outscored opponents by 107 points with him on the court. They’ve been outscored by 208 points with him off of it.

This postseason, Lowry leads the NBA in drawing charges with 13 – five more than any other player and more than 14 of the other 15 teams that qualified for the playoffs. He’s first in the league in loose balls recovered with 40 – 10 more than any other player – and ranks second in deflections. 

Has he had bad games? Of course – his scoreless Game 1 performance against Orlando is a recent example. Has he had a bad series? Yes, but for context: most of them came early in his Raptors career when he was overworked and injured going into the playoffs, which is why the 47-game sample size above was used.

Although Leonard will get plenty of credit for the Raptors’ first-ever Finals berth, and rightly so, they wouldn’t be there without the play and leadership of their point guard, particularly in that Bucks series. Playing through an injury to his left thumb, one that will likely require surgery after the season, Lowry was brilliant.

“I think that the things he always does, his natural instincts are to be a leader out there, and he shows it,” head coach Nick Nurse of Lowry, who scored 17 points and recorded eight assists in Saturday’s big win. “He does it with his IQ and his great knowledge of the game. He shows it with tremendous toughness as well. That's his other natural characteristic. He's blocking out guys twice his size. He's taking charges every game. He's just going to fight to win. He's a hell of a competitor, and that rubs off on guys. I think to me, he kept very level-headed. I think he kept very confident at all times as well, and I think that helped our team.”

It’s been a strange, unorthodox basketball marriage from the start. The Raptors have tried to trade Lowry on multiple occasions, which is their right. Lowry tried to leave as a free agent, which is his right. But through it all something kept them together and now here they are. They’ve already done something special, beating the odds and making history, player and team. But, as Lowry predictably pointed out, with the sell-out Scotiabank Arena crowd chanting his name during the team’s on-court celebration Saturday, they’re not finished yet. He still has that gold ball to win.

“It means a lot,” Lowry said. “It's taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here. I've run into one guy (James) for a while. We were given the opportunity – he left – and we beat a really good team in Milwaukee. For me, I'm going to savour the moment, but I'm not satisfied. Our goal is to win the NBA championship. We're just going to keep getting better and plugging away.”