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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Toronto Raptors lost their NBA Finals MVP, but they still have their identity. They rightfully remain concerned with staying healthy through the coronavirus pandemic and using the NBA’s platform to address systemic racism. And yet they still have someone who views this as an opportunity instead of an obstacle.
The reason for the Raptors navigating through such fluid and stressful circumstances with ease? Look no further than Raptors guard Kyle Lowry. Not only did he demonstrate why the Raptors remain a legit championship contender after leading them to a 107-92 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday with 33 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, Lowry has balanced his fiery on-court play with steady perspective.
“Understanding there is always going to be some ups and downs and going to be some big waves and low waves and smooth sailing,” Lowry said. “You got to be able to ride the wave, whatever it is. If it is a high moment, you just stay even.”
And if it is a low moment? Do the same thing. That helped the Raptors (47-18) challenge the Milwaukee Bucks (54-12), Boston Celtics (43-22) and Miami Heat (42-24) as the best Eastern Conference team 13 months after Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left their championship roster. And Lowry has ensured the Raptors have stayed just as sharp despite not playing an NBA game for over four months once the league suspended play because of the pandemic.
“They won a championship for a reason,” Lakers star LeBron James said. “And it wasn’t just all solely because of Kawhi and obviously you see that.”
It was also significantly because of Lowry, who stymied the Western Conference’s best team with qualities that make him beloved to Raptors fans and an irritant to his opponents.
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He fired from 3-point range (5-of-9). He attacked the basket either to finish at the rim (8-of-16) or draw a trip to the free-throw line (12-of-15). He drew whistles after absorbing brutal contact that often sent him to floor, but he always stood up quickly. He did the same thing when he drew charges, even on the 6-foot-9, 250-pound James.
“He seems to get himself into incredible shape, and he seems happy,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “He seems focused and is really excited and ready to play. It rubs off on the other guys. That’s what makes him a great leader.”
Sure, Lowry might play with emotion. He competes with uncompromising intensity. He yaps at officials and even drew a technical late in the game. And he has little patience for wasted small talk. The Raptors marvel at Lowry’s ability, however, to harness those emotions while also showing his humanity.
During the league’s four-month hiatus, forward O.G. Anunoby credited Lowry for frequently organizing team Zoom calls to offer league updates and positive reinforcement. Behind the scenes, Lowry also remained vocal with the NBA players union during its talks with the league about how to handle its safety protocols and use its platform to address systemic racism.
“It’s just understanding the times are different. You have to be able to adjust,” Lowry said. “That’s one thing about professional athletes and professionals in general. The adjustment rate is high. We’re able to adjust at any moment, any situation and any time. That’s the one thing I’ve learned throughout my career being able to adjust on the fly and not being stuck in your own ways.”
Lowry may not have had such perspective earlier in his career with the Memphis Grizzlies (2007-2009) and Houston Rockets (2009-2012). He also struggled to accept the Raptors’ decision to include good friend DeMar DeRozan in a trade package to the San Antonio Spurs for Leonard in 2018. And his intense play in previous seasons contributed to various injuries.
And now? A year after winning a championship with Leonard, Lowry may have topped himself. He has averaged 19.7 points (third-most in his career), 7.7 assists (third-most) and 8.9 3-point attempts (career-high). While the Raptors also have championship continuity in Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, Lowry’s presence elevates those around him.
“It does rub off when they play a little harder,” Nurse said of his team. “They would really have to copy it more and block out like he does and take more charges. They do play with a good amount of energy, effort and connectivity because of Kyle being out there, doing it and directing traffic and such. I wish they really emulated him on some stuff.”
Lowry has led the team’s charge both with his on-court play and his interest in speaking out on systemic racism. That started with Lowry being among all the participants with the Raptors and Lakers to kneel during both the American and Canadian national anthems. When Lowry knelt on a towel as support over the hard-wood floor, he thought about a white police officer kneeling on George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.
“To think about a human being kneeling on another human being’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, that’s a bad thought to have,” Lowry said. “That is an unbelievably messed up thing that happened to an innocent Black man.”
The efforts continued with his attire and words. After wearing “Education Reform” on the back of his Raptors jersey, Lowry wore a “Black Lives Matter” hat. He called for justice for Breonna Taylor, an unarmed 28-year-old Black woman that was killed in March in her sleep after police officers wrongfully suspected she was part of a money-laundering operation. He talked about voter suppression in the Black community.
“These things are the things that are getting me going and wanting me to go out there and do my job as best as I can,” Lowry said. “Our job is to be professional basketball players. But we also want to send messages and uplift other Black Americans that’s out there and Black people around the world. That’s what we’re doing, trying to win games and keep our message and the momentum going.”
What will it take for the Raptors to keep their momentum? Lean on Lowry for his on-court intensity and off-court calmness.
“I take that approach every single day,” Lowry said. “I think that’s where I’ve become a better person, man and leader.”