Lowry: Raptors need to treat Game 1 like a Game 7

Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry reacts after being fouled out of the game during second half of his team's 132-125 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder during NBA basketball action in Toronto on Sunday, March 18, 2018. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO — A lot of critical fingers pointed in Kyle Lowry‘s direction when the Toronto Raptors were swept by Washington in the opening round of the 2015 NBA playoffs.

The humiliating exit was a low point for both the team’s starting point guard and the franchise, and was the catalyst for changes to both.

"I know I got a lot of blame from some people in this room and I took it hard," Lowry told a crowded room of reporters at the team’s Biosteel Centre practice facility Friday. "I came back and got better from it. I think a lot of people got better."

The Raptors open the NBA playoffs on Saturday against the Wizards, and Lowry talked about adding that embarrassing series three years ago to the giant chip on his shoulder he’s famous for playing with.

"Every day I step on the floor I use it as motivation, everything in life I use as motivation," Lowry said. "But I don’t dwell on it. It’s something that’s old for me. I’m not going to lose no sleep from it."

Raptors fans, however, might lose some sleep over the team’s ill-boding opener. The team is infamous for blowing Game 1s, even in the friendly confines of the Air Canada Centre, winning just one of their 13 playoff openers. Their one victory came in the second round against Philadelphia in 2001.

The question was posed to several Raptors on Friday’s eve of the post-season. How do they slay that Game 1 dragon?

"Our Game 1 is our Game 7, to be honest," Lowry said. "We’ve gotta play like it’s Game 7, like it’s our last game. We’ve lost a lot of Game 1s … That’s the mentality that we have to have."

Lowry had just four points on 2-of-11 shooting in last year’s opener, a 97-83 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Why are the Raptors notorious for bad starts?

"I think we just haven’t played hard enough," Lowry said. "We’ve just been so uptight in Game 1s. I think this is a different year for us. We wanna play like a Game 7, but we just wanna go out there and play our game. Different offence, different system, different type of way we play the game and approach it. It’ll be fun."

A reporter asked him to expand on why the team’s been "uptight."

"I mean, we’ve lost a lot of Game 1s," the six-foot guard said.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey also shrugged at the Game 1 anomaly.

"You tell me (why) and we’ll both know. We’ll go to Wall Street and make a lot of money in New York, Bay Street here," the coach laughed. "It’s a phenomenon… I’m not a psychologist. I’m a basketball coach. I know how to prepare. That’s the way we have to approach it and not overthink it."

Both the Raptors and Wizards have changed in the three years since Toronto’s quick playoff exit. For one: there’s no Paul Pierce, who was Public Enemy No. 1 two straight series with Brooklyn and Washington.

After Washington’s sweep, the now-retired player poked fun at the Raptors. He posted a couple of memorable photos on social media. In one, he’s seated on the Iron Throne from "Game of Thrones," and proclaiming himself "King in the North." In the other, Drake opens his shirt to reveal a Wizards jersey, alongside the words "If You’re Reading This, the Wizards Just Swept," a play on one of the rapper’s album titles.

Raptors big man Jonas Valanciunas was a part of that short-lived playoff series.

"It was tough times being swept," the bearded Lithuanian said with a frown. "There are no good memories, no good things. We made some adjustments, now we have a whole different team. It feels like this is the best team I’ve ever been on. We’re ready to go."

The Raptors have indeed come a long way since, and are now the only team in the post-season that are ranked in the top five both in offence and defence. Casey is proud of his team’s growth.

"Now complaining about No. 1 seed, No. 2 seed, talking about those things instead of: Are we just going to make the playoffs?" the coach said. "That growth is precious. Especially we’ve grown players from within. It’s not like we’ve gone out and signed Larry Bird or Michael or anybody like that. It takes time for these players. You just don’t wave a magic wand and our organization’s done a great job.

"Usually you have to get into the top ten (in the NBA draft) to get guys like Norm Powell and Fred VanVleet and those kind of guys. We’re not where we used to be, but we’re not where we’re gonna go. We still have some room to grow as an organization and as a team."

VanVleet is questionable for Saturday’s game with a bruised shoulder after a hard hit in Wednesday’s season-finale in Miami.

The scrappy guard is part of Toronto’s bench that has become among the best in the league this season, and should play a huge role in the post-season.

"We had the No. 1 bench plus-minus in the league, one of the best producing benches in the league, and that’s who are … and we’ll stick to that."

Game 2 is Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre, then the series shifts to Washington for Games 3 and 4.


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