A year ago the Toronto Raptors were not in a good way, and they knew it.
They just didn’t or couldn’t say it. Even as they were spewing black smoke down the stretch on their way to a 12-16 finish in the regular season, they kept the truth at bay, intentionally or because they didn’t want to quite admit it to themselves. Even as their ugly sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs stripped them bare; as their 125-94 capitulation removed any doubt, they tried to put on a brave face.
But the truth comes out over time.
"We were trash," said Raptors all-star point guard Kyle Lowry. "We knew we were playing like trash. You’ve got to be real with yourself sometimes. Y’all were watching. We knew we were trash. … We just weren’t firing as a team on the same cylinders."
Which in a manner of speaking was Lowry admitting he was trash — shooting 31 per cent in the playoffs is tough to hide from. As an all-star, a leader and the engine that makes the Raptors go, much of last year’s sputtering finish was laid at Lowry’s feet.
For a guy whose career had taken its share of twists and turns and missteps, it was fair to wonder where it would go from there and where the Raptors were headed.
But out of those ashes you have what the Raptors and Lowry are now as they prepare to make amends not only for consecutive first-round playoff exits, but also for nearly two decades of Raptors post-season futility that will have a tendency to weigh down this franchise until someone can help them break through.
It was in the bleakness of last year’s failure that Lowry and co-star DeMar DeRozan spent most of the day following the final loss to the Wizards promising to each other that they wouldn’t let it define them, that they would change for the better.
Lowry’s goals were clear. After struggling with back problems and a calf strain that were either exacerbated by carrying some extra weight or the reason he put on the extra weight to begin with, he made up his mind to transform his body in his 10th NBA season.
"He learned a lot from last year," said DeRozan. "The day after that series, me and Kyle talked probably every single day how we was going to change our game, how we was going to get better, how he was going — I think I was the only person who knew that he was going to lose the weight. And when you take that type of approach, you understand that that next go-around is going to be different. We were definitely locked in the next day for him to be quicker on his feet, lighter on his feet, healthy. [Things were] definitely going to be different."
The results speak for themselves.
The Raptors set franchise records for wins with 56 and earned the No. 2 seed in the East, another franchise best. The newly-sleek Lowry averaged 22 points a game in pre-season and never took his foot off the gas on his way to starting his second straight all-star game, posting career highs in scoring (21.2 per game), free throws attempted (6.4) and three-point shooting efficiency (39 per cent) and totals (a Raptors franchise record 212) while tying for the NBA lead in steals and ranking fifth among NBA guards in WinShares (11.6). He arrived in training camp at 195 pounds with five per cent body fat and never budged throughout the regular season.
You can make the case that he is the Eastern Conference’s MVP, or at worst a close second to LeBron James.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a player that was scuffling by the time he arrived in Toronto, ostensibly as a backup to Jose Calderon, in the summer of 2012.
"He’s a totally different player," says Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. "Kyle may deny this but he has gotten better as a player in his time here. He has improved. His confidence level has gone up. He has gone from being a backup or whatever you want to call it in Houston to an all-star. So he has gotten better here and made himself into an all-star. … Just a totally different player, totally different place in life and he’s a big reason why we are second in the conference and have grown in the last three or four years."
But he needs to take that next step. Being a franchise player, twice an all-star game starter and widely recognized as one of the NBA’s best are nice accolades but ring hollow without the kind of affirmation only success in the playoffs can bestow.
It would put the final bow on a mid-career transformation from a player who seemed destined to bounce around as an elite backup, his injury history and penchant for falling out with coaches holding him back.
But Lowry wouldn’t be denied.
"There was part of his career he seemed kind of stuck," said Luis Scola, who played with Lowry in Houston and has been impressed with him upon being reunited in Toronto. "But he always had one thing that I think is very, very important. He’s got this firepower — I don’t know how you explain it in English — but he was committed to play. The way he plays on the court, he keeps going, and going and going. He never stops. He gets stopped; he goes again, one more time, one more time. That character, that firepower, that motor he has, he always had and I knew it would get you places, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t see him as a two-time all-star starter."
That’s what Lowry is and in Raptors terms, he’s one of the most influential players the franchise has ever had, as responsible as anyone for lifting the team to heights that seemed unimaginable even three years ago.
But there remain some big steps to take. Just as Lowry can be honest about his shortcomings a year ago, he doesn’t shy from the responsibilities on his shoulders now.
"We all know what happened the last two years, and we all know what everyone is saying. ‘Oh they’re doing all this, but they’re first-round losers…’ We know that," said Lowry. "We live with it. We’ve been through it. So for us, we haven’t won a playoff game in two years, realistically. We lost Game 7 and we lost four in a row last year. So we’ve just got to go out there and do our job. At the end of the day, we’ve just got to win games."
"Getting out of the first round. That would help, and that would be a start," he said. "But the next level is continuing to grow. Continuing the growth of our team, continuing the growth of individual basketball players, continuing the growth of the organization to keep getting better and furthering our positioning. We want to not just go first round, not second round. We want to keep playing as long as we can possibly play."
Lowry is healthy. He’s fit. He’s poised to be the engine that takes the Raptors where they need go.
He’s ready to turn last year’s trash into tomorrow’s treasure.