No point arguing

Photograph by KC Armstrong

The Toronto Raptors’ backcourt isn’t asking for respect. They’re taking it.

Lou Williams knew what he was in for. It was late March and Williams, then a member of the Atlanta Hawks, was in Toronto playing the Raptors for the second time last season. For three quarters Atlanta was in control, carrying a 14-point lead early in the fourth. But Williams had a feeling it wouldn’t be that easy.

bBackup point guard Greivis Vasquez got the Raptors rally started, coolly sinking a pair of free throws. Next it was the starters’ turn, as Kyle Lowry bulldozed his way to the line, split his freebies and then hit a 26-foot three-point dagger the next trip up the floor. DeMar DeRozan, a few weeks removed from his first all-star appearance, checked in for Vasquez, and proceeded to do the same—hitting one of two free throws and following it up with a deep three. In four minutes, a 14-point lead had been cut to one. “We ended up in a dogfight with these guys,” says Williams, whose team eventually lost by 10, “and that’s what we came to expect when we played the Raptors. They had a core of young guys who were scrappy, worked hard and wanted to be taken seriously—and they played like it.”

A lot has changed in Toronto. After spending years in irrelevance, wandering the NBA wilderness with no clear plan of escape, the team suddenly found itself in first place in the division and third in the conference through much of last year. The Raptors had developed an us-against-them mentality that trickled down from the front office to the  last man on the bench and was encapsulated perfectly in the playoffs by the stirring-if-grammatically-abhorrent “We the North” campaign.

Nowhere was that attitude exemplified better than the backcourt, where a host of often-overlooked players became the biggest catalyst for the team’s success. DeRozan had shown improvement every season, but it went curiously unnoticed until last year. Lowry had spent seven seasons trying to prove he was a starter in the NBA with little to show for it. Even when he arrived in Toronto, he ended up in a time-share until the team traded Jose Calderon to Detroit. Vasquez, meanwhile, had proven himself in both Memphis and New Orleans, only to find himself dealt three times in as many years. By the time the Raptors acquired him, he was struggling to gain meaningful minutes on a sad-sack Sacramento Kings team.

Together, those three players have dictated their success on the same terms as the franchise—by uniting to prove the rest of the NBA wrong. In acquiring Williams from the Hawks this summer, the Raptors added a like-minded player to provide depth and skill to an already formidable unit. And what had been this team’s biggest strength got, well, stronger.

Few could have seen last season coming. At the start of his first year as Raptors GM, Masai Ujiri’s team featured a largely inherited roster, and widespread changes were inevitable. On cue, barely a month into the season, he swapped Rudy Gay for a bounty of veterans and expiring contracts, including those of Vasquez and Patrick Patterson. It seemed to be merely the first domino to fall, a notion confirmed when rumours spread just a few weeks later about an agreed-to trade that would have sent Kyle Lowry to the New York Knicks had it not been vetoed in the final moments by the Knicks’ owner.

The failed trade left the Raptors with a still-developing core of DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, a group of incoming players trying to re-establish their careers and an already testy point guard now playing with all of the chips on his shoulder. It was a page torn out of a storybook, and what seemed like another transition year turned into home-court advantage and a division-championship banner. Like Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, Ujiri and the Raps had fallen ass-backwards upon a winning formula.

But none of it would have happened had it not been for Lowry, who emerged as an upper-echelon point guard and the kind of fearless leader teams can go decades without finding. By every measure, it was his best season—his per-game averages of 17.9 points, 7.4 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 38-percent shooting from deep were all career highs. He carried his performance into the playoffs, cracking 20 points per game in the first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets. In the dying seconds of game seven, it was Lowry who got the ball for one last shot—make or miss, you wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Re-signing Lowry wasn’t just the biggest move of the Raptors’ off-season—it was the most significant personnel move for this team since the Vince Carter trade nearly a decade earlier. Lowry had suitors across the league but recognized that, for the first time in his career, he’d found a home. In Toronto, his imprint is all over the team, and probably still in a few places on the Air Canada Centre floor. With DeRozan, he formed one of the best starting guard tandems in the NBA—they finished third in points per game and efficiency rating, fourth in rebounds, seventh in assists, and got to the free-throw line more than any other pair of guards. Not surprisingly, coach Dwane Casey leaned on them heavily, and the two logged 5,879 combined minutes—162 more than any other backcourt duo in the league.

It’s just one of the reasons why Vasquez’s embrace of his role off the bench is so important. Like Lowry, Vasquez was a free agent this summer, and had his own share of teams bidding for his services. But in the Raptors he, too, saw the opportunity to build on something special. “Greivis is about winning,” says Gary Williams, who coached Vasquez for four seasons at the University of Maryland, “and so he is willing to play whatever role the coach wants him to. But at the same time, he knows he’s good enough to be on the court as a starter.”

Not only can Vasquez distribute the ball—he led the NBA in assists while starting 78 games for the New Orleans Hornets in 2012–13—but last season he became a late-game option for a Raptors team still finding out who it could rely on to step up when it mattered. “Greivis wants to be in the big situations,” Williams says, recalling vividly the clutch baskets Vasquez hit in wins over North Carolina and Duke when both programs were top five in the country. “As a coach, that’s what you want from someone coming off the bench. You’re not just holding down the fort—you’re contributing in a major way.”

Vasquez—a point guard living in a shooting guard’s body—also creates matchup problems for opponents. His size allowed Casey to comfortably (and often) employ a two-point-guard lineup in crunch time, able to exploit nearly every defence thrown its way.

The addition of Lou Williams offers Casey yet another backcourt dimension. He’s a flashy, crowd-pleasing guard who excels with the ball in his hands and can create his own shot, a skill this team lacked at times when the starters left the game. With his speed and a game crafted after his idol, Allen Iverson—with whom he spent four years playing in Philadelphia—Williams will be expected to provide energy and instant offence off the bench, something he’s built his career on. And while his time in Atlanta was marred by a knee injury, he maintains this is the first season he’s started at 100 percent in two years.

At 27, Williams is already a nine-year veteran, a virtue of being one of the last players drafted out of high school, and at six-foot-two he can play both guard positions. With that kind of depth, Casey can afford to rest his starters more often, a must for a physical team expected to make it back to the playoffs in what will be another long season. What’s more, Williams already has familiarity with the roster, and spends parts of every summer working out with Lowry in Philadelphia. “I just want to be one of the guys,” he says after one of his first practices with his new team. “They have an attitude here where they want to win now, and I want to be a part of that.”

By the time the playoffs came around last season that attitude had been firmly established. But everything changed when, moments before the first home playoff game in five years, Ujiri addressed the thousands of fans packed into Maple Leaf Square just outside the ACC, which had been rechristened Jurassic Park on that day. After wrapping up his pep-rally speech, he paused, mic still in hand, and with two simple words took the Raptors’ new mentality to another level: “F–k Brooklyn!”

It was the most refreshingly honest outburst from a public sports figure imaginable, and behind Ujiri’s rallying cry the Raptors enter this season with more swagger than any other. History will remember this era of Raptors basketball in two ways: Before the comment and after. “I’m all for that,” says Williams. “It was edgy, and you’ll learn that so am I. What I took from that comment was: It’s about our guys. I don’t think it was meant as an offence to Brooklyn—it was more so that he wanted people to focus on his basketball team. I respect that.”

The 2013–14 Raptors demanded respect from a league that wasn’t prepared to give it to them. That was the mindset in the locker room, and behind the play of their guards the Raptors rode it to their strongest campaign in years—one that likely altered the course of the franchise. But this year, the rest of the league will be ready, and there are no guarantees of a repeat performance. People will ask if last season was a fluke; if Lowry will keep up his should-have-been-all-star calibre play in a non-contract year; if Vasquez can continue to thrive off the bench, especially with another ballhandler in the fold.

But we learned something about this group: Like the ball in crunch time, they’re not going to leave the answers in someone else’s hands.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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