Why Lowry is most responsible for turning Raptors into championship team

The Basketball Central panel sits down to discuss the impending NBA return to play schedule and the Toronto Raptors schedule heading towards the playoffs.

The real MVP.

A year later there is no disputing which single player was most responsible for leading the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title.

He was the Finals MVP and he plays for the Los Angeles Clippers now after a 12-month stint north of the border that will be forever legendary.

From his on-court production to the catalogue quirky quotes, Kawhi Leonard’s time as a Raptor was brief but almost impossibly impactful.

But on the anniversary of the Raptors championship, it might be worth putting Kyle Lowry’s contribution in a fuller context and recognizing the single player most responsible for turning the Raptors into a championship organization.

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“He knows everything that is going on around him. Every single thing,” is Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s scouting report on his longest-serving player. “And he just handles himself really, really well.”

Lowry got it done on the floor this time last year.

The Raptors title was a validation that shouldn’t have been necessary. But putting a ring on a player whose game is more about contributions that aren’t as easily captured by stats – unless you’re into the league’s ‘charges drawn’ leaders – provides a useful shorthand to swat away uninformed opinions with.

But in the context of the nearly three weeks of social unrest that has brought the United States and other countries to a potential reckoning on social and racial injustices, Lowry’s off-court contributions from a year ago deserve more discussion.

Two moments, in particular, stand out as Lowry was able to defuse tense and even racially charged moments and come out looking like the better man.

The first came in early in the fourth quarter of Game 3 at Oracle Arena in a win that signaled the Raptors weren’t just happy to be in their first Finals, but that they were there to be heard.

Lowry dives hard into the first row to save a ball headed out of bounds and ends up in the lap of a fan – another signature Lowry play. But before he can get back to the floor another fan pushes Lowry and yells at the Raptors star.

Lowry, agitated but cool in the moment, motions for the referees to intervene and minutes later the fan is escorted out of the building.

The punchline? The fan was Mark Stevens, a multibillionaire investor and part of the Warriors ownership group. He was eventually fined $500,000 and suspended by the NBA for a year.

But viewed in hindsight, the most interesting thing about the incident was what Lowry said the next day when asked about Stevens, who reportedly told him to “Go f— yourself” multiple times after shoving him.

“He showed his true colors at the time.”

And Lowry showed his too. While acknowledging he was furious about being hit and cursed for doing his job – and by a white owner with ties to the Republican party in Donald Trump’s America, no less – he was able to keep his composure.

How?

“By understanding at the moment my team needed me. Understanding that there are plenty of fans and kids in the world watching this game. Me being a grown man, having kids myself. I’m a grown man and my kids could always go back and see that,” Lowry said.

“If it wasn’t in this situation, things may have been — they probably would have been done differently, handled differently by me. But understanding that I have two young children and being able to hold myself to a certain standard, which I do, I hold myself to a high, high standard. And I have to make sure that I uphold that.

“That’s a big thing for me … never letting guys like him get under your skin because that’s bull crap.”

It’s fair to say that the Raptors storybook season would have had a much different ending had Lowry lost his temper or decided to respond to Stevens in kind with a shove or worse. A player hitting a fan – even if provoked – is something that would drown a suspension and likely altered the course of the series.

But Lowry wasn’t finished making big plays at key moments.

Lost in the mayhem of the Raptors’ Game 6, series-clinching win was Ujiri being halted and manhandled by a white Oakland police officer who claimed Ujiri didn’t display the specific credentials required to participate in the post-game ceremonies on the floor. Ujiri was originally charged with assault – the charges were dropped – but hasn’t spoken much about the incident publicly since he’s still the subject of a lawsuit, other than to call the civil suit ‘malicious’ and wonder if it’s only a coincidence that one of the NBA’s two Black team presidents was detained by a police officer from joining a celebration representing a lifetime of work?

Given what we’ve seen from police in the U.S. (and Canada at times) recently, it seems like a fair point to make.

Lowry’s play here was to reach into the crowd to pull Ujiri onto the floor. The scuffle was over by that point, but Ujiri was still in a sea of people, still visibly angry, rattled even; the joy in seeing the team he built win a title nowhere on his face.

Would things have gotten even more heated if Lowry hadn’t been there? Could what was a brief skirmish have turned more prolonged and uglier?

We’ll never know. But we know that Lowry, ever the point guard surveying the floor, was the one player who saw Ujiri in a jam and was there at the right time to make things right.

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He’s kept at it. With Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green gone and with no obvious co-star as he had for years with DeMar DeRozan, the 2019-20 Raptors are every inch Lowry’s team, and the results show.

If possible, this version of the Raptors is smarter, more unselfish and more resilient than ever before with Lowry empowering game-changing basketball from across the Raptors lineup. It’s a big reason why — as the anniversary of their first title passes — there remains a strong internal belief that the Raptors are in a strong position to defend their championship.

And with the league on pause due to a pandemic and the streets full of protesters looking for the dismantling of systemic racism — the circumstances that allow for a while billionaire owner to feel entitled to push and curse a black opposing player or an over-zealous cop to profile a black executive at the peak of his career — Lowry is still making plays.

He’s been a key contributor on the National Basketball Players Association’s return-to-play committee, working with NBA commissioner Adam Silver as the league and the players find ways to salvage the season.

And he took part in a massive Black Lives Matter protest in his native Philadelphia after spreading his views to his 1.5 million Instagram followers.

Soon enough Lowry will be back on the floor doing what he does best although his place in Raptors lore will forever be secure.

He’s the point guard who sees everything, whose timing is perfect.

And he makes things happen on the floor too.

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